President Visits New Orleans for Katrina Anniversary

President Bush visits New Orleans to mark the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Politics also surround another disaster anniversary, five years since the Sept. 11 attacks.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

President Bush today begins a two-day tour of the areas hit by Hurricane Katrina, first to Mississippi and then on to end the day in New Orleans. Tomorrow will be the one-year anniversary of the day Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. The politics of Katrina still surround President Bush.

NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams joins us now for some analysis. Good morning, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What is the president trying to accomplish with his visit to the Gulf Coast?

WILLIAMS: Well, clearly the failed federal response to the storm diminished claims of competent management by the Bush White House. Last week, an AP poll showed 67 percent of Americans disapprove of the president's handling of the Katrina disaster. Over the last year, Katrina has contributed to a sharp drop in the overall approval of his administration, compounding, I think, the slide on the polls because of lagging support for the war in Iraq.

In many ways, the president's political foundation is his supporters' view of him as trustworthy. But a recent Pew poll found a drop of 20 percentage points in the last several years in his rating for trust, down now to about 40 percent. So to counter this slide, the president will travel to the Gulf Coast today, as you said. And the White House strategy comes down to trying to reduce the hurricane and its aftermath to a regional issue. The president will highlight the $110 billion approved by Congress to help rebuild the area and point to local and state officials as the people now people now responsible for what's taking place.

MONTAGNE: So, presumably the Democrats want to undercut that strategy. What are they doing for Katrina?

WILLIAMS: Yeah. Exactly right, Renee. Congressional Democrats led by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid have been in the area; they put a spotlight on the slow pace of recovery and rebuilding, especially in New Orleans. Senator Reid said the Gulf Coast was hit by a hurricane and then a man-made disaster - what he called the administration's incompetence. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and more than 20 other Democrats are also holding events in the area again to hammer home their theme that Republicans in Congress have not been paying attention to domestic issues while spending money and attention on the war in Iraq.

MONTAGNE: And, Juan, there's another significant date approaching - that would be the five year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. How are Democrats and Republicans preparing to deal with events that will memorialize that day?

WILLIAMS: Renee, in many ways, it's just like the political response we're seeing to Katrina. Both sides are trying to set the terms for debate over the issue so it'll play out to their advantage during the fall campaign season.

The Republican plan is to use the five-year mark after 9/11 to remind voters there have been no subsequent attacks on their watch. One poll shows that in the aftermath of the foiled airplane-bombing plot in London, the president has a 55 percent approval rating on handling terrorism; that's his highest in more than a year.

In Congress, Republicans plan to introduce a series of bills to call attention to their ongoing efforts to strengthen law enforcement's hand in dealing with terrorism. Their strategy is to force Democrats into a vulnerable political posture of raising questions about electronic surveillance, interrogation of suspected terrorists and other civil liberties issues. The Democrats, meanwhile, will highlight ongoing security problems at ports, airports, as well as chemical and nuclear facilities around the United States. They'll also make the case of the war in Iraq is falsely tied by Republicans to the 9/11 attacks.

MONTAGNE: Juan, just last week, President Bush was on the defensive about tying the 9/11 attacks to a war in Iraq in answer to a reporter's question. Let's listen to the president speaking at the White House.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: And nobody has ever suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack. Iraq was a - Iraq - the lesson of September 11th is take threats before they fully materialize again. Nobody has ever suggested that the attacks of September the 11th were ordered by Iraq.

MONTAGNE: That's not actually true - maybe technically, but not quite true, Juan?

WILLIAMS: No, I - you know, Renee, I think clearly everybody would say that Vice President Cheney, in specific, made lots of allusions that would suggest a tie. The war is unpopular with voters and remains the big issue as the home stretch of this year's campaign season is about to begin in Labor Day. So it will be key for the president to sell the argument that fighting in Iraq is key to fighting terrorism if he wants to retain Republican control of the House and Senate and keep himself from becoming a real lame duck. You know, at this point, his power is directly tied to whether or not Republicans remain in control on Capitol Hill.

MONTAGNE: Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's analysis from NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.

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