Bush Takes Public Role in Monitoring Rita

President George W. Bush (C) receives a briefing from U.S. military Joint Task Force-RITA officials.

President receives a briefing from U.S. military Joint Task Force-RITA officials at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters

President Bush is in Texas Sunday for a briefing on the damage caused by Hurricane Rita. He spent Saturday at Peterson Air Force base in Colorado Springs, Colo., monitoring the storm and the federal response.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

President Bush flies to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, today from Texas as he surveys damage from Hurricane Rita. Mr. Bush spent last evening in San Antonio after monitoring the storm from the military's Northern Command in Colorado and from an emergency operation center in Austin. NPR's White House correspondent David Greene has been following the president. Earlier this morning, David talked with us about how the president has handled the response to Rita in light of criticism the White House received after Hurricane Katrina.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

As Katrina was hitting the Gulf Coast, the president was at his ranch, he was in California giving a speech on terrorism and he was even photographed holding a guitar in his hands after that speech. This time, he didn't want any of that. He clearly wanted to convey an image of being totally engaged. The challenge was he promised that he wouldn't get in the way of any of the operations in the affected communities. So we've had this odd tour of places that were sunny and dry but where he could be photographed looking at hurricane maps, places where he could argue that were very relevant to the response of Rita if they weren't anywhere near the storm. This morning, he's in San Antonio. He's getting a briefing from Lieutenant General Robert Clark, who's heading a military task force responding to Rita. He's then heading to Baton Rouge and then heading back to Washington, but you can be sure he's going to be coming back and visiting some of those places hardest hit by Rita as soon as he can possibly get there.

HANSEN: The president said he took responsibility for whatever mistakes the federal government made after Katrina. Is he satisfied with the response to Rita?

GREENE: Well, the White House is saying it's still too early to say, but the president yesterday did say it appeared to be an organized response and that the various levels of government are working together. And that was one of the huge criticisms after Katrina that the state, local and federal officials were in disarray and weren't working in harmony at all, and the president did say he take responsibility for whatever the federal government did wrong.

But it was interesting yesterday to start to listen to what some of the president's aides and the president's spokesman, Scott McClellan, were saying. Asked about the evacuation in Houston, where the traffic was snarled and it didn't appear to go that well, the White House message was, `Well, that was a local and state responsibility.' But when they were asked about some of the other evacuations, like at a hospital in Beaumont, Texas, they gave the military a lot of credit for stepping in and being involved. And I think what you're starting to see is a president and a White House that wants to be seen as a solution, coming in and finding places where they can say the state and local officials didn't do well and where the federal government could come in and be a solution and perhaps try to get Americans to forget where there were faults by the federal government the first time around.

HANSEN: Now the president still has a lot on his agenda. Has the administration's hurricane response undermined all of that?

GREENE: Well, one things that's going to be there and is not going anywhere is the Supreme Court. And the president is going to be making another nomination sometime soon to fill Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's seat, and that's going to be big news in Washington.

But there's no doubt that the president woke up in an entirely new political reality after Katrina hit. This was a leader who said he wanted to cut spending and now he's dealing with just staggering estimates; $200 billion the government might have to pay for the response to Katrina. There's going to be more obviously in the response to Rita. The president's poll numbers in some very important areas--I mean, you know, on his leadership abilities, a lot of Americans doubt his leadership now and that was something that he depended on in a rock-solid way for a long time. So in many ways, these storms have put him in an entirely new place. It's a president who's going to be reassessing a lot, and as the memories of these storms fade away, he tries to start getting back to his agenda, he's going to be starting over in many ways, and that's a dangerous thing in a second term.

HANSEN: NPR White House correspondent David Greene in San Antonio, Texas, traveling with the president.

Thank you very much, David.

GREENE: My pleasure, Liane.

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