- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 15, 2005

President Bush’s approval has slipped in the polls since the federal government’s initial response to Hurricane Katrina, but his speech last night from the devastated Gulf Coast promised an unprecedented federal spending effort and may mark the beginning of a political turnaround.

A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll released yesterday put Mr. Bush’s job-approval rating at 41 percent, the lowest level of his presidency. It was the first time that more than half of the poll’s respondents — 51 percent — gave Mr. Bush poor marks.

Democratic political consultant Scott Segal, however, thinks the political storm soon will blow over, and the president will be helped by performances of New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, both Democrats.

“While there is no question that the administration is doing a better job of putting a competent face on recovery activities, they have also benefited from a political windfall,” Mr. Segal said. “The New Orleans mayor and the governor of Louisiana have seemed intent on criticizing each other, which leaves a clearer path for the president.”

The Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll supports that view, showing that 42 percent of respondents thought the state and local governments were most responsible for the problems responding to the hurricane. Just 29 percent blamed the federal government, and 19 percent blamed both.

Republican political consultant Bob Moran said Hurricane Katrina “will not have a national impact 14 months from now” in midterm congressional elections, largely seen as much a referendum on the sitting president as on Congress.

“The Democrats are acting out of weakness and not strength here. They are trying to shift blame away from the failure of local Democrats,” Mr. Moran said.

Nonetheless, Mr. Bush publicly took responsibility for the problems, accepted the resignation of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director Michael D. Brown and put new people in charge of the federal efforts on the ground.

Democrats, however, continue to exploit what they see as Mr. Bush’s vulnerability on the issue, releasing critical statements almost daily and calling for an independent commission to study the administration’s slow response to the disaster.

The liberal Campaign for America’s Future is trying to tie the Republican majority in Congress to the performance of the Bush administration, saying the slow reaction to the hurricane proves “the failure of the radical, conservative attack on government.”

“The president is claiming responsibility for the failure, but this wasn’t just a failure to handle one natural disaster,” said Roger Hickey, co-director of the think tank. “This debacle shows the failure of three decades of conservative, anti-government philosophy.”

Mr. Segal said there are “many hard questions for administration officials to answer” about the recovery effort, but fears Democrats might be overplaying their political hand.

“The tone Democrats strike must be constructive and balanced, and not simply strident,” he said.

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