Why Bush team is stuck in rough patch

New video of disaster officials warning Bush of hurricane Katrina adds to public-relations stumbles.

Just when it seems the news can't get worse for the Bush administration, it does.

On top of the continuing uproar over the Dubai ports deal and record-low job approval, add to President Bush's woes the leak of a videotape showing disaster officials warning him urgently about hurricane Katrina, the day before it hit the Gulf Coast. The video reinforces the Democratic message that the administration had plenty of advance notice, but still reacted slowly. And that's just this week's bad news.

There's also the warrantless-wiretap controversy, the indictment of a top aide and the threat of more, and the flap over the slow publicizing of the vice president's hunting accident, all against a backdrop of an Iraq on the edge of civil war. Many Americans probably aren't aware that the economy has rebounded and could clock in at a handsome annual growth rate of 4 to 5 percent this quarter.

Bush allies don't deny that he's going through another rough patch, and argue that some of the bad news is beyond his control. But there's also a sense that his team - mostly the same people who have been with Bush since he took office - could use some retooling, and try to regain the ability to "see around corners" that often served Bush well in his first term.

"The problem in the White House is everybody there's got a huge job and they all take incoming fire all day," says Charles Black, a Washington lawyer and longtime political adviser to Republican presidents.

While some observers have suggested that Bush needs to bring new people with fresh ideas and energy into his inner circle, Mr. Black disagrees. "It might just be a matter of shifting priorities for people," he says. "I would put a couple of people in charge of looking over the horizon and anticipating things that might come up that you can head off in advance and that sort of thing - more so than what they've been doing."

This week's CBS News poll shows Bush with a 34 percent job approval, an eight-point drop from last month and an all-time low for that poll. Bush also got just 30 percent approval for his handling of Iraq, another low. But perhaps most worrisome for the White House is the sagging approval of his core constituency: Among Republicans, support dropped from 83 to 72 percent.

One obvious culprit is the deal to sell operational control of six major US ports to a company owned by the United Arab Emirates, Dubai Ports World. The American public firmly opposes the agreement - 70 percent overall, including 58 percent of Republicans, according to CBS. Bush continues to defend the deal, as a period of additional review begins following the uproar among both Republicans and Democrats over the lack of consultation with Congress, a reaction that caught the White House by surprise.

The pre-Katrina videotape, which was obtained by The Associated Press, presents the latest example of a White House forced off-message by forces beyond its control. In an ideal world, Thursday's top White House story would be the agreement reached between the US and India on nuclear cooperation, a pact that Bush called "historic" during his visit to South Asia. But instead, the video played incessantly on news channels, giving new legs to the debate over who was to blame for the delayed federal response to the hurricane.

Democrats point to the moment in the videoconference when then-director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, states, "This is, to put it mildly, the big one," as evidence that the White House had fair warning on Katrina. They also point out that Bush asked no questions. Republicans say the tape shows that Bush was fully engaged in the crisis, pointing to his assurance to state officials that the federal government was "fully prepared" to help.

Ultimately, analysts say, the administration needs to look beyond distractions like the Katrina videotape and devise a workable political approach to the defining issue of Bush's presidency: Iraq.

"Their biggest problem is developing some bipartisan way to deal with Iraq," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas in Austin. "They're still alternating between bipartisan rhetoric and impugning the patriotism of those who disagree with Bush. The daily bad news from Iraq doesn't help."

As for why the Bush team is not firing on all cylinders, Professor Buchanan lists a variety of factors: a let-down after having won a second term, fatigue from having lived through the first term, and the inevitable tendency in all presidencies to accumulate problems over time.

"The systems they have for early warning and damage control might need rethinking and recalibrating," he says. "You can talk about basic competence, but there have been times when the whole crew has shown good basic competence."

The immediate aftermath of 9/11 is Exhibit A, he says.

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