With Katrina Fresh, Bush Moves Briskly
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG | October 24, 2007
WASHINGTON, Oct. 23 — It was not quite 2:30 a.m. in Washington on Tuesday when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California asked President Bush to declare an emergency because of the wildfires raging in his state. An hour or so later, the request — pre-approved by Mr. Bush before he left the Oval Office on Monday evening — was granted.
By the time most Californians awoke on Tuesday, the Pentagon had sent helicopters and troops to California and the homeland security secretary and head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency were on their way. By Tuesday evening, the White House announced that Mr. Bush himself would go on Thursday. He canceled a trip to St. Louis, planning to send Vice President Dick Cheney instead.
For a presidency still haunted by memories of Hurricane Katrina, the forceful round-the-clock response was a political no-brainer — the “anti-Katrina,” in the words of Peter Wehner, a former domestic policy adviser to Mr. Bush.
And if actions were not enough, Mr. Bush also served up words, interrupting a speech on Tuesday morning about the global campaign against terrorism to talk about the disaster. After warning of the threat of a ballistic missile attack, he segued into the wildfires, saying, “We send our prayers and thoughts with those who’ve been affected, and we send the help of the federal government as well.”
Mr. Bush has dealt with natural disasters since Hurricane Katrina, but the California fires are clearly the administration’s biggest challenge since the storm flooded New Orleans. Beyond demonstrating that the White House has learned its lesson, the rapid response shows how Mr. Bush, late in his presidency, is relying on his executive powers — veto threats, presidential orders and his bully pulpit — to keep himself in the news and convey an image of being in charge.
“Debates about appropriations bills are not riveting television,” Mr. Wehner said, “but wildfires can concentrate the mind and the imagination. There’s a natural disaster going on, people are in danger, property is being destroyed, a fire is raging out of control and something needs to be done.”
He continued, “That’s an unfolding drama, and the question is, Is the president going to be a part of that drama and meet the challenge?”
Mr. Bush has hinted recently that he is concerned about being pushed to the sidelines, at least on domestic affairs. Discussing his veto of a children’s health bill at a news conference last week, he said his veto power was “one way to ensure that I am relevant.” It was a striking reminder of a comment by his predecessor, Bill Clinton, who once drew ridicule when he declared, “The president is still relevant here.”
But the president is always relevant in a major disaster. Don Sipple, a Republican strategist who has worked for Mr. Bush and Mr. Schwarzeneggger, said that when Mr. Schwarzenegger was first elected, Mr. Bush offered pointers on handling a crisis.
“I think Bush gave him a tutorial on nothing more important than being there in times of disaster,” Mr. Sipple said. “I wish he had heeded his own advice during Katrina.”
Instead, Mr. Bush was photographed flying over the devastated city of New Orleans, an image that sticks with him to this day. Now, with more than 500,000 people ordered to leave their homes, Mr. Bush will go to California on Thursday to “witness firsthand what people are going through,” said Scott Stanzel, the deputy White House press secretary.
Mr. Stanzel said Mr. Bush and the governor, mindful that a presidential visit could drain police resources from a state already pushed to the limit, determined that Thursday would be the best day for Mr. Bush to go. But he began offering help as early as 4 p.m. Monday, calling Mr. Schwarzenegger rather than waiting for the governor to call him.
He told Mr. Schwarzenegger to call him back “if there were any additional needs,” Mr. Stanzel said, and about an hour later, the governor did, to ask for military assistance and alert Mr. Bush that a request for the president to declare a state of emergency would probably be forthcoming. Mr. Bush authorized the declaration before leaving the West Wing; it was announced later by the press office, presumably while the president slept.
“He’s trying to be proactive on something that he can be proactive on,” said James Thurber, director of the Center for the Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “He can’t be proactive on Social Security reform or Medicare funding, but this is one of the areas where he can. I think it’s part of a larger picture of how weak he is, especially domestically.”
Republican strategists say the all-out effort will help Mr. Bush but is not likely to be enough to restore his reputation — even in a state like California with a friendly Republican governor who is clearly coordinating his efforts with Mr. Bush.
But as Dan Schnur, a Republican strategist in California, said: “The worst possible situation for the White House would have been to have had even one state or local elected official complaining that they hadn’t heard back yet from the administration. This is still a very red state, so the accomplishment might be in terms of further damage avoided, rather than political capital gained.”