ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is a national day of prayer and remembrance for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. President Bush attended a service at the National Cathedral in Washington with the prominent African-American minister, Bishop T.D. Jakes. And last night, in his speech in New Orleans about the storm, he acknowledged once again failings in the initial response by the federal government.
(Soundbite of presidential address)
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Americans have every right to expect a more effective response in a time of emergency. When the federal government fails to meet such an obligation, I, as president, am responsible for the problem and for the solution.
CHADWICK: Joining us is NPR senior correspondent and regular DAY TO DAY contributor Juan Williams.
Juan, welcome back. What about this speech last night?
JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:
I thought it was pretty strong, Alex. I think what you have here is a president whose ratings now are the lowest they've ever been in his tenure as president, down about 40 percent according to most polls. And what he's trying to do here is pivot. He's going from recrimination to reconciliation to repair. And the idea here is he's not going get engaged in the arguments that take place in terms of what the White House likes to call finger-pointing or blame-gaming. Instead, they're saying here's a forward-looking president. So last night, what you get is a president talking almost in grocery list or laundry list terms about plans that he has to speed the repair of New Orleans and that whole Gulf Coast region. And so he goes through various plans including paying for families to be pulled back together, their airfare, the information, everything; his plans for neighborhood rebuilding, housing. This was his effort to get in front of a disaster, a disaster that's not only affected the Gulf Coast, but it's affected his tenure as president and may make him a lame duck very shortly.
CHADWICK: His aides have been talking to lawmakers and conservative think tank people for a couple of days about what should be in this speech. So I think some basics of it are known in Congress. What's the reaction there?
WILLIAMS: The congressional response is mixed in large part because they are still engaged in a large fight over the possible investigation, the question as to whether or not it would be a congressional investigation of what went wrong in terms of FEMA's action, the whole federal response, or an independent 9/11-type panel. Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, has said that the way that it's structured now by the White House with little engagement in terms of saying `where was the leadership' is essentially like having a pitcher call his own strike. So you have that big argument going on right now, and the president hoping to stay away from it, but not getting the necessary support that he would expect given the national emergency.
CHADWICK: Juan, a completely different subject except, as we shall see, there is no completely different subject these days. Iraq's President Jalal Talabani was in Washington this week. This should have been a triumphant moment for the Bush administration. There is this constitutional referendum that will take place in Iraq in about a month. But still, the questioning at a press conference with Mr. Talabani there was all about Katrina.
WILLIAMS: Without a doubt, and, you know, what we've seen in polls is that the president's poor performance in terms of his leadership with regard to Hurricane Katrina is impacting public support for the war in Iraq. So you get at that press conference the president for the first time saying that he took responsibility for all of the failures, with regard to the federal government, of Katrina. But if you go beyond that, you understand the depth of this, Alex, which is that the American people already think it's time to pull out the troops. Those numbers keep increasing with the sense that, one, the president has not been an effective leader here at home, and, two, the resources that are being allocated for the war in Iraq could have been better allocated here at home according to Americans who are asked in polls.
CHADWICK: I just wonder if people in Washington, and I mean congressional people in Washington, aren't really hearing this. You said perhaps he'll be a lame-duck president much more quickly than expected.
WILLIAMS: Without a doubt. You look at his second-term agenda, obviously the war in Iraq and the whole notion of democratization in that Middle East region--I just heard this from Secretary Rice last week--that's their agenda. Their agenda, though, is getting knocked out politically because of declining support and in part, it's a consequence of the lack of leadership, the problems with Hurricane Katrina. Then you stop and you think about Social Security. Remember, they wanted to pass a cut in the--elimination of the estate tax this fall. That's not going happen. You start and stop and think about Social Security. It was on weak ground already. Now the idea of any impact on the social safety net, I think, seems politically impractical. You keep going in terms of immigration, the tax code reforms--all of those items now are getting pushed farther and farther back as the president is in a weakened state.
CHADWICK: NPR's senior correspondent, regular DAY TO DAY contributor, Juan Williams. Juan, thank you again.
WILLIAMS: My pleasure, Alex.
CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.
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