Katrina & Beyond

Political Aftermath of Hurricane Rita

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After Hurricane Katrina, President Bush's approval ratings fell dramatically in public opinion polls. As Rita hit, the president took steps to show the country he was dealing with the catastrophe. Renee Montagne talks with News Analyst Cokie Roberts.


After Hurricane Katrina, President Bush's approval ratings fell dramatically in public opinion polls. As Rita hit, the president took steps to show the country he was dealing with the disaster. Joining me now is NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts.

Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Do you think the president's appearances and his statements over this past weekend will make a difference in how the public responds to his handling of the hurricanes?

ROBERTS: Well, I think he has two problems. One is of perception and the other is of reality. The perception is that he keeps going to the region, and it appears to be somewhat strained, trying one thing after another. It's the sixth time he's been there. And as we've said before, he has yet to find that moment that he had after September 11th, the bullhorn moment, but the reality might be even worse. And you've just heard in Carrie's report that even with very good planning in 96 hours, it is extremely difficult--Excuse me--to evacuate millions of people in an orderly fashion. And that's with that kind of warning. So what happens if there's no warning? What happens if there's a terrorist attack?

And the president talked over the weekend about perhaps putting the military in charge of some big disaster, but there are problems associated with that. And the truth is is that evacuation plans are better than they used to be, but the problem for the president is that people believed he would keep us safe and now know it is very unlikely that we could be safe in any disastrous situation. To be fair, the administration never pledged that they'd keep us safer. They always warned of future terrorist attacks, but still, they sent very, very strong signals: You're safer with us than you are with the other guys. And that's basically why people re-elected the president.

MONTAGNE: And have the Democrats been able to benefit from this disaffection with President Bush?

ROBERTS: You know, I asked the Democratic pollster that over the weekend, and his answer was absolutely not. The Democrats are nowhere. No one, according to the polls, knows who they are or what they stand for, and perhaps if the public is sufficiently angry with the ins, if oil prices go up or they feel strongly enough that the country is off on the wrong track, it could boost the Democrats in the next election regardless of their own plans. But right now it's very hard to see. As this pollster put it to me, `No equivalent of a Contract with America that the Republicans had to take the House in the midyear election in 1994,' the Democrats hope to do something with the Republican ethics problems, that--Bill Frist selling his HCA stock has raised some questions. And, of course, ongoing investigations of Tom DeLay--they're trying to say majority leaders in both Houses are ethically tainted. They're going to have a little trouble making that a big sell to the American public.

MONTAGNE: Well, Cokie, does the fact that the Democrats seem to be, as you describe it, drifting mean that the president doesn't have to worry about his next appointment to the Supreme Court?

ROBERTS: No, I think he does have to worry. And, again, there's sort of two strains of thought there. One is that with his polling numbers so low, all he's really got left behind him is his conservative base, and he better not make that base angry, and one of the ways he could do that would be by naming Alberto Gonzales, the attorney general, old friend of President Bush whom he has reportedly long wanted to name to the bench. But conservatives oppose Gonzales and have made that opposition very well known over the last couple of weeks.

The other theory is is that the president needs to reach out to Democrats or to at least moderates and Independents to improve his numbers in the polls and to name a minority, maybe a minority woman. Laura Bush has twice said that the president should name a woman to replace Sandra Day O'Connor, but meanwhile, while the president's figuring out who he names, the Democrats are trying to figure out how they vote on John Roberts, and they're having differences of opinions there as well. Do they send a signal that no conservative will do, or do they send a signal that they're going to be reasonable in their--in the view of the Republicans on this one, so send us somebody next time that we can also accept?

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much, NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts.

And for complete coverage of hurricanes Rita and Katrina, visit our Web site, npr.org.

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