Shaken by Katrina, public trust in government begins to rebound

Despite intense criticism, President Bush's approval rating is higher than it was in August, some polls suggest.

Government at all levels - not just President Bush and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) - has taken a beating in the public arena following hurricane Katrina. Dark predictions of a deepening loss of faith toward public institutions have followed.

Now, there are inklings that negative reviews of the government response to Katrina have bottomed out and may be on the upswing.

The latest Gallup survey, comparing people's initial responses to the government handling of the crisis with how they feel now, shows that a majority of Americans are feeling better about the role of government in dealing with the hurricane than they did initially. And despite the sense that the president has suffered grave damage to his public image over Katrina, Gallup and other polls show the effect has been minimal.

"Despite initial criticism of the federal government's slow response to Katrina, Bush's overall job approval rating remains essentially where it was at the end of August," notes David Moore, managing editor of the Gallup poll, in a Sept. 13 report.

Currently, Gallup shows Bush's approval rating at 46 percent, up from 45 percent at the end of August and 40 percent in mid-August. Of course, all polls show variations in result. Some show Bush's public approval has dipped below the 40 percent threshold.

Others, such as the Rasmussen Report, favored by conservatives, show Bush with a slight uptick at 47 percent approval. And some leading pollsters are not at all sure that the president has bottomed out.

Independent pollster John Zogby says the president's latest numbers show him with 11 percent support among Democrats, 23 percent among independents, and 77 percent among Republicans - a significant decline even among GOP voters, who gave him 91 percent support on Election Day last November.

Turning a corner?

"I don't know yet whether he's turning a corner," says Mr. Zogby. "He's a pretty resilient fellow, so now I think he gets it. But I think a lot of damage has been done to people's view of government and that's not the greatest thing to have presided over."

In the final analysis of Bush's tenure, Zogby believes Iraq will still be the central factor. "I can see, sometime in 2008, the president cutting the ribbon on the all-new 21st century New Orleans, and that would be a big deal, and it could erase some of the bad of the last two weeks, but I think Iraq returns to center stage very quickly."

Ever since 9/11, Bush's strength in public opinion has been in overall leadership and in his handling of terrorism. Now, even if polling shows he still has a reliable core of Republican support, the president is also clearly working to reestablish himself in those two areas.

Bush has replaced the head of FEMA, Michael Brown, who was found to have inadequate prior experience in emergency management and whose performance pre- and post-Katrina damaged the federal government's credibility. The president is also expected to name a "reconstruction czar" to lead the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast region.

Using the bully pulpit

On Thursday, Bush will make a major speech addressing hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, the White House has announced. Like no other official in American public life, the president has the bully pulpit - and the megaphone of the media that will publicize his words - to present himself to the people in a way that seeks to win back the confidence at least of his voters.

To get himself back to 50-plus approval ratings, "he needs help from events - events on the ground in New Orleans, in Iraq, in gasoline prices," says Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster.

All presidents have faced moments of intense criticism. Some have bounced back. Others, like President Carter and the first President Bush, never recover. But the model the current President Bush may consider is Ronald Reagan.

"At the depths of the '82 recession, Reagan looked like a goner, but the economy came back and so did Reagan's fortunes," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College in California. Reagan's secret? "He stayed the course. Had he faltered in his policies in '82, we might not have seen as much progress in '83 and '84."

Another historical lesson Bush may be heeding comes from Carter's "crisis of confidence" speech, commonly remembered for conveying a sense of malaise in the country. Republican analysts agree that Bush is correct in not admitting mistakes, such as the placing of Mr. Brown at the head of FEMA.

"The danger is that one admission would lead to calls for more admissions," says Professor Pitney, who was at one time active in Republican politics. "He can address an issue without falling into the trap of perpetual apology."

The easing out of Brown is the latest example. Bush did not fire Brown outright; Brown was first sent back to Washington, and replaced on the ground in the Gulf region, then tendered his resignation three days later. That approach allows Bush to maintain his image of loyalty to his appointees.

Perhaps one of the toughest image problems Bush faces going forward is in his dealings with the African-American community. Of all the polling out of Katrina, perhaps the most arresting is the perceptions of African-Americans: While white Americans don't believe race played a role in the initial delays in hurricane relief, a strong majority of blacks do believe that is the case.

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