President Bush: Living Too Much in the Bubble?

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New York – Last week, President Bush was seated in the White House Situation Room, watching military and disaster officials beaming in from the Gulf Coast on the giant screen of his secure video- teleconferencing system. It had been nearly a week since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, ripping gashes in the Superdome and swamping homes up to their eaves. Bush, more fidgety than usual, was hearing a jumble of conflicting reports about the number of refugees in the Convention Center and the whereabouts of two trucks and trailers loaded with water and food. Furious, he interrupted and glared at the camera transmitting his image back to Mississippi. “I know y’all are trying as hard as you can, but it ain’t cuttin’ it,” the Commander in Chief barked. “I wanna know why. We gotta do better,” TIME’s Mike Allen and Matthew Cooper report in this week’s cover package (‘System Failure,’ on newsstands Monday, Sept. 12).

Four days after Katrina struck, President George W. Bush himself briefed his father and former President Clinton in a way that left too rosy an impression of the progress made, a source tells TIME. “It bore no resemblance to what was actually happening,” said someone familiar with the presentation. A former aide said, “His inner circle takes pride in being able to tell him ‘everything is under control,’ when in this case it was not. The whole idea that you have to only burden him with things ‘that rise to his level’ bit them this time,” TIME reports.

The Administration’s Three-Part Comeback Plan: Late this week, Administration aides were describing a three-part comeback plan. The first: Spend freely, and worry about the tab and the consequences later. “Nothing can salve the wounds like money,” said an official who helped develop the strategy. “You’ll see a much more aggressively engaged President, traveling to the Gulf Coast a lot and sending a lot of people down there.”

The second tactic could be summed up as, don’t look back. The White House has sent delegates to meetings in Washington of outside Republican groups who have plans to blame the Democrats and state and local officials. The third move: Develop a new set of goals to announce after Katrina fades. Advisers are proceeding with plans to gin up base-conservative voters for next year’s congressional midterm elections with a platform that probably will be focused around tax reform. Because Bush will need a dynamic salesman to make sure that initiative goes better than his Social Security proposal, advisers tell TIME there is once again talk of replacing Treasury Secretary John Snow.

Considering Body Similar to Lower Manhattan Development Corporation: One idea being strongly considered for rebuilding the Gulf Coast is the creation of a body similar to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which is what the New York state and city governments did to oversee the rebuilding of ground zero, sources tell TIME. The White House has begun talking to possible candidates to lead the effort, the sources say. Republicans are also buzzing about the possibility that the White House will name a hurricane czar like Rudy Giuliani or Colin Powell, and announce a Marshall Plan–style recovery package, so that the nation can see the breadth of the government’s overall commitment rather than have it dribble out piecemeal.

Longtime Bush watchers say they are not shocked that he missed his moment—one of his most trusted confidants calls him “a better third- and fourth-quarter player,” who focuses and delivers when he sees the stakes. “The extremely highly centralized control of the government—the engine of Bush’s success—failed him this time,” a key adviser said.

Echo Chamber where Good News Prevails Over Bad: “Katrina has shown the incredible weakness of the notion that you can have weak players in key spots because the only people who matter are in the White House,” said a lobbyist who is tight with the Administration. “You can’t have a Mike Brown at FEMA unless you can guarantee that there isn’t going to be a catastrophe.” The result is a kind of echo chamber in which good news can prevail over bad—even when there is a surfeit of evidence to the contrary.

The President’s Increasing Isolation: A related factor, aides and outside allies concede, is what many of them see as the President’s increasing isolation. Bush’s bubble has grown more hermetic in the second term, they say, with fewer people willing or able to bring him bad news—or tell him when he’s wrong. A youngish aide who is a Bush favorite described the perils of correcting the boss. “The first time I told him he was wrong, he started yelling at me,” the aide recalled about a session during the first term. “Then I showed him where he was wrong, and he said, ‘All right. I understand. Good job.’ He patted me on the shoulder. I went and had dry heaves in the bathroom.”

TIME Poll: TIME’s latest poll conducted last week shows how badly Bush’s approval rating has been wounded: his overall approval rating has dropped to 42%, his lowest mark since taking office. And while 36% of respondents said they were satisfied with his explanation of why the government was not able to provide relief to hurricane victims sooner, 57% said they were dissatisfied.

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Media Contacts: Ty Trippet, 212-522-3640, Jennifer Zawadzinski, -9046, Kim Noel, -3651