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Collateral Damage

President Bush and his administration have few defenders of their response to Hurricane Katrina, but just how much the bungling will hurt Bush and his party going into next year's elections is not yet clear. If the mishandling of Katrina truly is a crisis for the Bush administration, congressional Republicans could become collateral damage.

A strong argument can be made that rather than creating a new problem for Bush, Katrina has simply exacerbated two major problems: first, the perception that the president lacks an understanding of average people and the poor, and, second, the perception that the war in Iraq is siphoning resources and attention from what should be domestic priorities.

This January, when the ABC News/Washington Post poll asked whether Bush "understands the problems of people like you," 56 percent said he did not. In late August, 50 percent said he did not, and 40 percent said he did. Similarly, in early October 2004, a CBS News poll asked, "Do you think that George W. Bush does or does not understand the needs and problems of people like yourself?" and found that just 46 percent thought he understood, 52 percent thought he did not. Later that month, the number was 48 percent for each choice. Katrina just made this chronic Bush problem worse.

Publicly available polling results don't seem to indicate whether Americans see the war in Iraq as drawing money and attention away from pressing domestic needs, but pollsters in both parties privately say their polling and focus groups tell them that's how the public feels. Federal budget expert Stan Collender, in his September 6 nationaljournal.com column, estimated that Katrina will cost the federal government $100 billion. Some predictions are even higher. Meanwhile, Americans are growing weary of the war's costs, both human and financial, particularly in the face of mounting domestic problems that could easily use some of the money being spent in Iraq.

What should Bush do now to address this Katrina public-relations fiasco? And what can congressional Republicans do to ensure that they do not become collateral damage? The New York Times reported that the White House is quietly trying to shift the blame to state and local authorities, a tactic that could aggravate the PR problem and prolong the finger-pointing. A smarter approach would be for both the president and congressional Republicans to immediately start doing everything in their power to seem on top of the problem, demonstrating compassion and competence while avoiding any actions or statements that might prolong or deepen this PR disaster.

While the Bush administration cannot undo its Katrina mistakes, smart moves now could bend public opinion from "they screwed it up" to "they bungled it at the beginning, but starting on the Friday after the hurricane made up for it and handled it well." While trying to make amends is hardly a novel approach, it is certainly a more mature and more presidential way of dealing with what has turned into a horrible situation.

There is plenty of room for blame to be shared on the local, state, and federal levels, and not only by this president and Congress but also by previous ones. Were appropriate disaster plans in place, and were they implemented quickly by local and state authorities? No, certainly not. And while the current president and Congress did not appropriate money to strengthen the levees in and around New Orleans, neither did previous presidents and Congresses. To a considerable degree, what's hurting Bush is that the federal government is held, fairly or not, to a higher standard of competence in the handling of disasters of this magnitude.

Congress and the president had an exceedingly full plate in front of them before Hurricane Katrina and the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist. The question at this point is, will the combination of Iraq, Katrina, and twin Supreme Court vacancies crowd everything else out of the national agenda between now and the 2006 elections?

One seasoned foreign observer of American government recently noted in private that President Nixon managed to deal with and eventually end the Vietnam War while simultaneously opening up relations with China, negotiating a strategic arms limitation treaty with the Soviet Union, and pursuing an aggressive domestic policy agenda. For all of his faults, Nixon managed to keep all of those balls in the air, my overseas colleague noted, because he refused to allow a war to consume his administration. As the U.S. involvement in Iraq continues, Bush could learn from Nixon's example.

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