Tuesday, September 13, 2005

I CAME BACK FROM MY INTERVIEW to find that Pres. Bush has taken personal responsibility for the breakdown in responding to Hurricane Katrina.

President Bush for the first time took responsibility Tuesday for federal government mistakes in dealing with Hurricane Katrina and suggested the calamity raised broader questions about the government's ability to handle both natural disasters and terror attacks.

"Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government," Bush said at a joint White House news conference with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

"And to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility. I want to know what went right and what went wrong," said Bush.

Facing sharp criticism and the lowest approval ratings of his presidency, Bush scheduled a speech to the nation from Louisiana for Thursday evening. It will be his fourth trip to the devastated Gulf Coast since the storm struck two weeks ago.

It was the closest Bush has come to publicly faulting any federal officials involved in the hurricane response, which has been widely criticized as disjointed and slow. Some federal officials have sought to blame state and local officials for being unprepared to cope with the disaster.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., welcomed Bush's conciliatory remarks. "Accountability at every level is critical, and leadership begins at the top," she said.

Damn straight, and I must say that my first thought when I saw the AP headline, "Bush Takes Responsibility for Blunders," was that maybe rivers running away from the sea would be next. I was actually impressed, albeit astounded at how bad things had to get for Bush before he would say the four little words ("I made a mistake").

Then I read the Washington Post piece on Bush's mea culpa.

The first major public event in the White House effort to take control of the post-Katrina political and policy agenda will occur tomorrow night in a prime-time speech to the nation that Bush announced yesterday.

Already, he has dispatched his top strategist, Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, and other aides to assemble ideas from agencies, conservative think tanks and GOP lawmakers to guide the rebuilding of New Orleans and relocation of flood victims. The idea, aides said, is twofold: ensuring that the federal response comports with Bush's conservative ideology, and preventing Katrina from swamping his second-term ambitions on Social Security, taxes, and Middle East democracy-building.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), a Bush ally, said the recovery effort provides conservatives with an unusual opportunity to test ideas that have been hard to sell on a national scope, including vouchers to cover education for dislocated students and tax incentives for business investment. "There are a whole host of ideas being looked at," Kyl said.

In what may become the next major post-Katrina policy, the White House was working yesterday to suspend wage supports for service workers in the hurricane zone as it did for construction workers on federal contracts last week, administration and congressional officials said. This possible move, described by administration officials as being under debate, already provoked preemptive Democratic protests.

At tomorrow's speech, the president is to outline his vision more comprehensively than he has to date. A top aide said he will stress that New Orleans officials will dictate how the city will be rebuilt, but also make plain the reconstruction should reflect his vision of government -- including reducing regulatory obstacles and emphasizing entrepreneurship over big government, the aide said. He will discuss plans to provide health care, education, jobs and housing assistance to flood victims, another aide said.

Karl Rove planning reconstruction with conservative think tanks? Vouchers? Waiving pesky "regulatory obstacles" -- like safety rules? Like pollution controls? Suspending wage supports for service workers?

Okay, the real Bush is back. Apparently, the "acceptance of personal responsibility" and the admission of mistakes made and the concern for America's ability to fight disasters at home as well as terror abroad are all a big front for what's truly on the planning board: using the tragedy of thousands of Americans who have lost everything to build his conservative agenda.

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