For Bush, an Issue of Competence

Katrina made him seem a fumbler and eroded his poll numbers. If the President can't get his act together, the GOP faces big trouble

By Richard S. Dunham, with Lee Walczak

For George W. Bush's storm-tossed White House, the imagery after Hurricane Rita could hardly have been more different than the visuals that flashed into Americans' living rooms after Katrina. Gone was the detached, behind-the-curve President who was slow off the mark in directing the government response to a flooded New Orleans.

When Rita struck, Bush launched into Presidential whirlwind -- hands-on and completely plugged in. The angry local officials who lashed out at the White House in the chaotic days following Katrina were replaced in TV interviews by sheriffs and governors who thanked the feds for the rapid response.

So this means President Bush has weathered the most serious challenge to his leadership since September 11 and is poised to resume his power glide through the rest of his term, right? Wrong. From a political standpoint, Bush's response to Rita may have stopped the political damage inflicted by his handling of Katrina. But Operation Recovery doesn't herald a return to the heady days when the President's agenda dominated the political landscape.

The reason: Bush's image as a savvy manager may have been fundamentally reshaped by the storms. The inspiring leader who stood amid the smoking rubble of the World Trade Center and addressed rescue workers with a bullhorn is a figure from the past. In his place is a President who seems late on the uptick, tolerates political cronies in high places, and delegates too much authority to underlings.


  Bush's poll numbers tell the story. For the first time, a majority of Americans don't view him as a leader who inspires confidence or displays good judgment in a crisis, according to a Sept. 8-11 Gallup Poll. A bare majority -- 52% to 47% -- calls Bush a strong and decisive leader, down from 80% at the time of the 2003 Iraq invasion. And despite the President's best efforts, the trend is clearly down.

There's irony aplenty here for Team Bush. Traditionally, voters see button-down Republicans as the more competent party on many core issues, partly as a result of the more free-spirited Democrats' chronic disorganization. But despite his positioning as an MBA President who delegates many decisions to his subordinates, Bush suddenly finds himself having to worry about the dreaded "C word." No, not conservative. Competency.

Of course, 2005 was already proving to be a difficult year for the White House, with the President making uncharacteristic stumbles on such key initiatives as Social Security private accounts and immigration reform. But Katrina chaos crystallized a problem that had been slowly eroding Bush's standing with the public all year. And that's the growing doubts about the Administration's ability to handle the war in Iraq, expand the economy, and control soaring energy prices.


  The President's conduct of foreign policy and the war on terrorism have formed the bedrock of his popularity at home. But most Americans now have concluded that the Administration wasn't truthful in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and didn't adequately plan for the occupation.

A Sept. 16-18 Gallup Poll found that just 32% of voters approve of Bush's handling of Iraq, and by 59% to 39% they think the country made a mistake in dispatching troops. For the Administration, this is a question of core competence, touching on decisions made from the inner sanctum of the Pentagon to the White House Situation Room. The only way to reverse such dismal numbers is to show tangible progress on the ground in Iraq. Can Iraqis govern themselves without civil war? Can American troops start to come home? Those are still imponderables.

Nearly as many Americans have questions about the President's ability to cope with the economy. Here, only hard-core Republicans seem to think that Bush is up to snuff. A Sept. 18-21 American Research Group survey found that just 34% of Americans approve of the President's economic stewardship. Almost all of those people are true-believers: 78% of Republicans, but just 11% of Democrats and 18% of independents, give the President passing marks in Econ 101.


  Record gasoline prices and storm angst have combined to sap consumer confidence. A plurality of Americans think the nation already has entered a new recession -- 45% to 41%, according to the ARG. And by 53% to 29%, they worry that things will continue to deteriorate over the next year.

Worse for the President, many people don't think he or the Republican Party are up to the job of turning the economy around. A Sept. 14-15 poll by Winston Group, a Republican survey firm, found that voters now have more confidence in Democrats to handle the economy by a narrow 47% to 43%, while favoring the out party by wider margins for dealing with energy prices (51% to 36%) and jobs (50% to 41%).

Democrats, who haven't articulated a strategy to extricate the nation from Iraq or improve the economy, will be heartened to learn that voters now have more confidence in them than in Bush to do both. The challenge for the Prez: convincing voters that he has a plan to lower gas prices and boost growth.


  The 2006 midterm election is still 13 months away, and much could change at home and abroad. And, yes, Democrats are experts at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. But today, Americans say they want Democrats in charge on Capitol Hill. Voters want Democrats to control the Senate by 49% to 42%, according to Winston, and by 52% to 40% in the House, according to a Sept. 8-11 Pew Research Center survey. Swing-voting independents favor the Dems by a 2-to-1 margin.

The President can only hope that his stronger posture in the aftermath of Rita -- and the megabuck Gulf Coast rebuilding project promised after Katrina -- convince Americans that he's competent to carry on. Indeed, if the "C word" in voters' minds come 2006 is competence -- rather than compassion or conservatism -- Republicans across the board could be in for more stormy weather.

Dunham is Washington Outlook editor for BusinessWeek, and Walczak is Washington bureau chief

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