With the Hurricane Katrina anniversary behind it, the White House is moving quickly to shift the focus to a topic it thinks will play better for the GOP this fall. Thursday is scheduled to mark the start of yet another attempt by President Bush to frame the war in Iraq, and the war against Al Qaeda, in terms that might move his poll numbers in the right direction.
But is there anything he can say about the war that he hasn’t said before? The White House speechwriters will have plenty of opportunities: Thursday’s speech to the American Legion’s national convention is the start of a series that builds up to Bush’s address to the United Nations General Assembly in two weeks.
For Bush’s aides, the immediate goal is never about the poll numbers—not because they don’t follow them closely, but because they don’t want to be measured by the cold hard digits after one or two speeches. Instead, the president’s priority over the next two weeks is to re-focus attention on “the enemy,” to empathize with the American people about all the bad news on TV, and to set the entire debate in the wider context of a giant ideological struggle in the Middle East.
That may sound like a familiar mantra, but President Bush has never worried about repeating himself. In fact, he and his aides see repetition as a virtue—a chance to work phrases into the broader public consciousness, and ultimately move the polls and the political debate.
Take one piece of the current debate about Iraq: withdrawal. By sheer force of repetition, the administration has framed the discussion about troop levels in terms of completing the mission versus immediate withdrawal. That’s a great move in terms of poll numbers. According to the most recent Washington Post poll, just 33 percent of Americans want to see an immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq; 66 percent want the numbers decreased, but no immediate pullout.
In fact many of the advocates for a pullout do not favor an immediate withdrawal, but rather a phased one. Rep. Jack Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who has led the debate on pulling out of Iraq, estimated that his plan for an immediate redeployment would take six months to accomplish.
When the debate is about completing the mission versus a fixed deadline for withdrawal, the numbers look very different from the question about immediate withdrawal. When The Washington Post poll asked in June about a deadline for withdrawing troops from Iraq, 47 percent said there should be a deadline—and of those, 80 percent said the deadline should be either six months or one year. That’s not so wildly different from Murtha’s position.
At best, Bush’s series of speeches can give a small bump to his approval numbers—and overall support for the war—as his Iraq speeches did at the end of last year. A more reasonable expectation is that the speeches can at least halt any further decline in support for the war in Iraq—and throw his critics into a defensive posture. According to the last NEWSWEEK poll , just 31 percent approve of Bush’s handling of Iraq. No matter how good Bush’s speeches are over the next two weeks, it will be exceptionally hard to shift public opinion from those depressed levels.
In the year since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast and sent his approval ratings to new lows, President Bush has had no problems apologizing for his administration’s lackluster response to the storm, and on Tuesday, he did it again during a day-long visit to New Orleans to commemorate the hurricane’s anniversary.
Speaking before an invited audience at a New Orleans high school that was heavily damaged in last year’s storm, Bush somberly accepted “full responsibility” for the federal government’s flawed response to the hurricane. “A year ago, I made a pledge that we will learn the lessons of Katrina and that we will do what it takes to help you recover,” Bush declared. “I’ve come back to New Orleans to tell you the words that I spoke on Jackson Square are just as true today as they were then.”
Yet saying sorry and taking responsibility in the wake of the storm hasn’t been the challenge for this White House. The real battle: Convincing a public stunned by the images of human suffering and incredible damage inflicted upon areas like the Lower Ninth Ward that Bush really gets it when it comes to the outrage and abandonment felt by so many along the Gulf Coast over the last year.
Does he get it? After a series of public relations missteps—like Bush’s initial Air Force One flyover of New Orleans two days after the storm—the White House has repeatedly tried to demonstrate the president’s concern over the flawed response and the rebuilding of the affected cities, particularly New Orleans. This week’s visit was his 13th stop in the region since Katrina, and White House officials say he’ll be back again.
Yet the most revealing moment out of all these trips happened on Tuesday, not during his speech but during a planned, but largely unscripted drop-by at a local diner off Canal Street in New Orleans’ Mid City neighborhood. Bush was there to have breakfast with Mayor Ray Nagin and to mingle with the locals at Betsy’s Pancake House, a local institution that was heavily damaged in the flood.
As Bush shook hands with the patrons, Joyce Labruzzo, a waitress at Betsy’s, walked up behind him. “Mr. President, are you going to turn your back on me,” she teased. “No ma’am,” Bush grinned, pausing ever so slightly. “Not again.” While dispensed in a playful manner, it was an unusual moment of candidness for Bush, who (in spite of plenty of prodding by reporters) tends to avoid introspection, at least publicly.
But that was the story of Bush’s anniversary visit to New Orleans: heavily choreographed events focusing on progress and hope infused with the occasional tough dose of reality. At his final stop in the city, Bush visited the Musicians Village in the Ninth Ward—a row of new houses built by Habitat for Humanity for artists and musicians to return to New Orleans. Painted in bright colors, the development is a hopeful spot in what remains a largely devastated neighborhood, full of abandoned houses and large piles of debris.
As the president’s motorcade pulled up, some of the neighborhood’s few residents emerged from their FEMA trailers and gutted houses to find out what was going on. When one woman walked into the street to see what was happening, she was stopped by a Secret Service agent and became angry. “I can’t walk into the street?” she yelled, as local police moved in to act as crowd control.
A little while later, reporters were taken into one of the new homes under construction in Musicians Village. There, the president and First Lady Laura Bush were taking in an impromptu concert by local blues musician J.D. Hill, owner of the new home. At one point, Bush grabbed a TV camera and filmed an NBC cameraman dancing to the music with a tambourine, prompting laughter from both reporters and White House aides on the scene.
Later, Bush helped Hill unfurl a new American flag to hang outside his house—the kind of progress that Bush often talks about when he speaks of the rebuilding of New Orleans. Yet across the street was a different form of reality: a family sitting on the porch of their gutted house taking in the scene. On their fence was a protest banner, noting their lack of water and electricity. Another seemed to be a message specifically for Bush: “Make Levees Not War.”