White House, GOP Face Political Challenges
LIANE HANSEN, host:
President Bush visits the Gulf Coast this week. He'll stop in Mississippi tomorrow, then spend the night in New Orleans. Tuesday, he'll mark the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
In the first weeks after the storm lashed Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, Mr. Bush and his administration were harshly criticized for a slow response to the devastation. That's hardly been Mr. Bush's only problem this past year. Continuing violence in Iraq and failing to get an immigration bill through Congress have added up to a tough year for the president, politically. Congressional elections are just more than two months away and the Bush team wants to change the momentum.
We've brought in NPR's White House correspondent, David Greene.
David, a high profile visit to New Orleans by the president. What's the White House up to behind the scenes?
DAVID GREENE reporting:
A lot of campaigning. There's a full-scale effort by the White House to help Republicans win these mid-term elections. Mr. Bush is going to be talking about Katrina and soon he'll be marking the anniversary as well of the September 11th attacks. But Karl Rove, Vice President Dick Cheney, First Lady Laura Bush and the president himself have been spending a ton of time out on the campaign trail.
The White House knows what the consequences may be if the Democrats were to take both these Houses. The president's agenda would be in trouble the last two years. His legacy would really be threatened. The president said last week that he's really going to keep the discourse with Democrats respectful. But I was out covering Karl Rove a few days ago - he had two fundraisers in the Midwest - and in Ohio he had some biting attacks on Democrats, accusing them of being weak on national security. Here's just a taste of it.
Mr. KARL ROVE (White House Strategist): Now, this is a persistent pattern among a lot of Democrats. They say they want to win the war against radical Islam but they have too often been obstacles to achieving that goal. Think about it. Some Democrats say we should win the war on terrorism, but yet those same Democrats turn around and say we should cut and run in Iraq.
HANSEN: David Greene, isn't that something we could have heard from Republicans in 2004?
(Soundbite of laughter)
GREENE: It definitely is. They're turning to their old playbook, and the playbook really is to pound the Democrats as much as possible, make them appear weak on terrorism, and especially portray them as defeatists when it comes to the war in Iraq. You'll recall the Connecticut primary, where Ned Lamont - the Democrat who is not supportive of the war effort - defeated Senator Joe Lieberman, a Democrat who is - supports the president's war policies. And he's now running as an independent. Lieberman is leading every poll and could keep his seat.
The White House has made an extraordinary move and they've decided they're going to stay away from this race completely. The president is not even going to endorse the Republican who is running against Lieberman and Lamont. Why do they do this? They certainly don't want to take any Republican votes away from Lieberman, but also this shows how the president's team is just relishing any opportunity to paint the Democrats as lacking a vision, as unable to lead, and that's their big goal. What better way to do that than to have two Democrats just beating each other up, one who's supportive of the war and the other who wants to bring the troops home?
HANSEN: Let's talk about the polls, though. The president's numbers are still pretty bad, the approval ratings still just around 40 percent, which - I mean that can't bode well for his party.
GREENE: No, not at all. And the White House realizes the danger there. There's a lot of unease among Republican candidates, especially in races where Democrats are painting them as essentially clones of the president.
The polls are really telling sort of a complicated story. There was a recent CBS/New York Times poll that showed 55 percent of Americans saying Mr. Bush is handling the war on terrorism well. That looks like a good number for the White House. But at the same time, fewer Americans believe the war in Iraq is connected to the war on terrorism.
So what does that mean? In 2004, even when there was opposition to the war in Iraq, the president won a narrow victory. But his party seems in a little bit more troubled this fall, because with concerns over Iraq growing, Americans view the situation in Iraq as very important. Those views may shape their decisions, even if they still have confidence in Mr. Bush's efforts to fight terrorism.
Another concern for Republicans is their base, and Karl Rove has gone after and tried to shore up the Republicans base in all the past elections. There's a new Pew Research Center poll that shows fewer Americans believing Republicans are friendly to religion. Now, if Republicans start losing even a small number of Christian conservatives, that could be real trouble for them.
HANSEN: David, I want to ask you about a moment in the president's news conference. You covered it last week. I know they're renovating part of the West Wing and the press corps is in a temporary workspace across the street. One reporter asked Mr. Bush if the press will ever be invited back. Let's listen.
President BUSH: Absolutely, you're coming back.
Unidentified Woman: Can we hold you to...
President BUSH: Coming back to the bosom of the White House.
(Soundbite of laughter)
President BUSH: I'm looking forward to hugging you when you come back, everybody.
HANSEN: Is the president a bit chummier with the press corps than he used to be?
GREENE: That cut certainly makes it sound that way. In that event, as well, he told veteran Helen Thomas, who was sitting in the front row, that one of the back and forths they had with each other felt like dancing with her. You know, Liane, he's always joked with the press, but a White House does often reach out to the media when the poll numbers are at their lowest. And over the last year, especially in the last few months, the president has been taking more questions from reporters at some events. He held some off the record sessions with reporters up in his residence.
If there's a strategy here, I don't know if it's working though. Certainly reporters appreciate more opportunities to ask the president questions. That's a key part of our job. But this is still a very tight-lipped and secretive White House. Reporters all know that, even if they have been a bit more friendly.
HANSEN: NPR White House correspondent David Greene. David, thanks a lot.
GREENE: My pleasure.