updated 8/31/2005 9:10:35 AM ET 2005-08-31T13:10:35

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First glance
Cutting his vacation short, President Bush returns to Washington this afternoon to participate in a videoconference on Hurricane Katrina relief efforts with a White House-organized task force that includes representatives of the US departments of energy, health and human services, homeland security, defense and housing, and the Environmental Protection Agency.  Bush is expected to visit hurricane-ravaged areas as soon as the White House determines that his presence won't disrupt relief efforts.  And NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports that, per US Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, Bush will tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

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The reserve will be tapped to loan -- as opposed to sell -- crude oil to afflicted companies, O'Donnell reports.  The size of the loan is TBD, in part because, according to Bodman, the oil companies have not yet been able to assess their own needs.  Bodman says the government is capable of moving about five million barrels a day.  He tells O'Donnell that a decision was reached "very quickly for Washington."

Bloomberg notes that Bush's fast action to loan companies oil suggests that he learned a lesson from Hurricane Ivan.  "Last September, when Ivan thrashed the Gulf Coast and halted most oil production in the region, Bush took 11 days to tap the reserve.  Oil surged 11 percent between Ivan's arrival and the president's decision."

As we wrote here yesterday, tapping the reserve would provide the Administration with a visible means of offering Americans some relief from high gas prices after the energy bill Bush signed into law before going on vacation contained incentives for conservation but didn't address current prices.  Still, there are questions about just how much real, immediate relief would come from tapping the reserve, which won't ease the bottleneck at refineries.  Papers on both coasts this morning cite AAA's prediction that gas may hit $3 per gallon by the holiday weekend.

Bush also mentioned the need to protect Iraq's oil fields from terrorists yesterday as a new reason to keep up the US military presence there.

Cue the latest national poll on Bush's standing.  The new Washington Post/ABC poll finds Bush's job approval at an all-time low for their survey, 45%.  The Post says that Bush's ratings on Iraq "were little changed from two months ago" -- and that gas prices may be largely responsible for the drop.  "More ominously for the president, six in 10 Americans said there are steps the administration could take to reduce gas prices.  Slightly more than a third say the recent run-up has been due to factors beyond the administration's control."

That said, the poll "also provided bad news for Democratic leaders, who are judged as offering Bush only tepid opposition.  Slightly more than half of those surveyed expressed dissatisfaction with congressional Democrats for not opposing Bush more aggressively."  Both self-identified Democrats and independents expressed dissatisfaction with Democratic leaders for not sufficiently challenging Bush over the war and other issues.

The Washington office of economic research firm International Strategy & Investment considers just what Bush's current approval ratings might mean for his agenda when Congress returns.  His rating "is hovering around 40% in most recent polls, the low point of Bush's presidency and below all recent second-term predecessors except Nixon...  A low approval rating is more of a handicap for a president presiding over a divided government" than for one whose party controls both the White House and Congress.  "But on issues on which some bipartisan cooperation is needed, stalemate becomes more likely."  At about 40%, Bush "may have to fashion a legislative strategy that needs only 51 votes in the Senate," ISI writes, so as not to spark a Democratic filibuster that Republicans would lack the votes to stop.

Katrina, oil and gas
The latest from Bloomberg: "Hurricane Katrina's swathe of destruction... threatened to cause $25 billion of damage and drove the price of oil above $70 a barrel...  Gasoline and diesel tanks ran dry at some terminals in the Midwest, South and Southeast as oil refiners and fuel wholesalers across most of the U.S. started rationing deliveries...  The oil market is 'having a panic reaction to the possibility of shortages,' said Deborah White, an economist at Societe Generale SA in Paris.  'We've never seen a disaster on this order before.'  Crude oil for October delivery today rose as much as 84 cents, or 1.2 percent, to $70.65 a barrel in after-hours electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.  It was at $70.50 at 9:52 a.m. London time.  Yesterday, it reached $70.85, the highest since the contract started trading in 1983."

The Wall Street Journal: "Until now, energy prices have been rising largely because of robust demand in the U.S., China and other growing economies.  But Katrina represents a supply-side shock, more akin to the oil shocks of the 1970s -- and one without the price controls in the 1970s...  Now, if the supply disruption lasts several weeks while demand remains strong, gasoline prices will probably surge and gobble up the piles of money that consumers would normally be putting into the broader economy."

"Louisiana accounts for a little more than 1% of the nation's total economic output," says the Journal in another story.  But Katrina "damaged an already strained national energy infrastructure and a critical hub for the transportation of grains, steel, rubber and many other products...  If Katrina does lead to sharp disruption in economic activity, it would mark a change from past disasters, which typically destroy wealth but create economic growth" by creating jobs.

The Financial Times says, "In total, hurricane Katrina has shut down more than 1.4m barrels of oil a day, about 7 per cent of US demand.  The number is almost exactly equal to the maximum amount of spare oil capacity left in Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest supplier of oil, which has already offered to increase production to make up for the shortfall."  The paper also reports that at this point, "Chevron appears harder hit than any other oil company."

"The hurricane also delivered a blow to the USA's struggling airlines, driving up jet-fuel prices 22% in two days," says USA Today, which also has this Fed note: "The storm could produce enough of a national wallop that it could cut overall economic growth and affect Federal Reserve strategy about how far to raise short-term interest rates.  That depends largely on the impact of energy prices...  If higher energy prices slow the economy, the Fed, which has been gradually raising short-term interest rates for a year to forestall inflation, could have to pause.  But under a scenario of higher prices and slower growth, the Fed would probably focus on combating inflation.  In recent years, energy shocks and Fed tightening have led to recessions."

The Financial Times says "economists warned that the recent further surge in oil prices could have a significant impact on economic growth in Asia."

And the Washington Post outlines what could be "the longest and costliest relief effort in US history."

Hurricane politics
The Washington Post says that Bush's "abrupt decision to return to Washington represented a turnabout of sorts for a president who for weeks ignored criticism that such a long summer break -- the longest stretch away from Washington of any president in decades -- appeared unseemly at a time when U.S. forces are at war in Iraq.  The White House repeatedly defended Bush's sojourn in Texas by noting that modern communications technology meant he was able to lead just as effectively from the ranch as from the Oval Office."

"Returning to Washington ahead of schedule... could insulate the president from criticism that he was on vacation during the crisis, and the return could be seen as a symbolic gesture to hurricane victims," speculates the AP.

A White House spokesperson who confirmed that Bush will soon visit the affected areas "added that the White House was concerned that a quicker personal survey by Bush might disrupt rescue and recovery efforts under way, reports the Chicago Tribune.

Both national party chairs have e-mailed supporters asking them to contribute money and time to the Red Cross.  RNC chair Ken Mehlman: "During times like these, there is no room for politics and partisanship.  This is a time when we all come together to help our neighbors."  DNC chair Howard Dean (who signs his e-mail "Governor Howard Dean, MD"): "America is at its best when we realize that we are one community -- that we're all in this together."

More on the economy
"U.S. consumer confidence unexpectedly strengthened in August as an improving job market outweighed rising gasoline prices, the Conference Board reported on Tuesday."  - Financial Times

A forthcoming Commerce Department report is expected to show that the US economy "probably grew at a 3.4 percent annual rate in the second quarter, the same as initially estimated, as consumer and corporate spending let companies reduce inventories."  - Bloomberg

Poverty has increased for the fourth straight year in a row.  USA Today reports on the new Census data released yesterday.  "The number of Americans living in poverty rose by 1.1 million to 37 million last year, despite a robust economy that created 2.2 million new jobs...  The increase was felt most by whites, people ages 18 to 64, and residents of the Midwest...  The four-year increase in poverty under President Bush is the worst since his father was in office," though a Commerce official notes that "'more people are joining the workforce'...  Democrats and liberals said the report was troubling."

National security politics
The AP covers Bush's statement during his San Diego speech yesterday that a continued US military presence is needed in Iraq to protect its oil fields.

The Los Angeles Times: "Bush's speech... marked the latest of his several recent efforts to turn around public opinion on the war, raising themes similar to those he invoked during appearances before veterans and troops last week in Utah and Idaho.  In each of those appearances, Bush has been careful to spell out a goal of total victory."

"The speech was Bush's third in just over a week defending his Iraq policies, as the White House scrambles to counter growing public concern about the war," writes the AP.

The AP also covers US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad suggesting that there may be "more changes to Iraq's draft constitution, signaling that the Bush administration hasn't given up its campaign to advocate a charter that will be broadly accepted."

And the AP reports that Cindy Sheehan yesterday said she was “‘grateful’” Bush refused to meet with her in Crawford, because it “‘galvanized the peace movement.’”  “‘If he'd met with me, then I would have gone home, and it would have ended there.’”

As Sheehan prepares to board a bus for Washington, the Washington Times says that "[p]owerful liberal advocacy groups such as MoveOn.org are taking a less active role in... Sheehan's anti-war activities in the wake of criticism that they may have muddied her message."

In announcing their fall meeting late next week in Phoenix, the Democratic National Committee notes that Iraq veteran Paul Hackett, who narrowly lost that early August special election in a GOP stronghold of Ohio, will address the meeting's general session.

The Roberts nomination
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said at a USA Today ed board meeting that "it would be 'appropriate' for the Senate Judiciary Committee to ask Supreme Court nominee John Roberts about his personal views on abortion.  But Gonzales drew the line at senators asking Roberts about 'an issue or case that he may have to preside on'...  Gonzales also dismissed contentions by Senate Democrats... that Roberts had an ethical obligation to bow out of considering a terrorism suspect's lawsuit against the Bush administration after he was interviewed by the White House in early April for a potential opening on the high court."

The New York Times reports that the Reagan library has discovered new documents on Roberts, “adding a potential last-minute complication to the hearings on his nomination to the Supreme Court.”  Sen. Chuck Schumer warned that they might need additional time to question Roberts if these new documents contain significant information.

The AP reports on what little information is out there about how Roberts is preparing for next week's hearings.

Next up in the series of press conferences held by Roberts critics during this week before his hearings: the NAACP holds an event today.  The Republican National Committee and other Roberts supporters quickly refuted the anti-Roberts Alliance for Justice's charges yesterday that Roberts opposes civil and women's rights; the RNC, under a new "Supreme Court Update" letterhead, charged the Alliance's effort with being part of an alleged "left-wing" "obligatory opposition."

Also yesterday, Progress for America, the most prominent pro-Roberts 527 organization, launched a new TV ad which urges the Senate to give Roberts a "fair up or down vote" and, according to the group, to treat Roberts with the same "respect" that then-Clinton SCOTUS nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg received during her confirmation hearings in 1993.  PFA says that Ginsburg declined to answer many questions during her confirmation process in the interest of not pre-judging cases, and was overwhelmingly approved by the Senate anyway.  The ad will run on FOX and CNN for a week starting today.

Barbara Comstock, PFA advisor and former Justice Department official, said that Judiciary Committee members do have the right to ask questions, but implied that because of the "Ginsburg precedent," Democrats should "keep an open mind."  The group also released a 32-page report entitled "The Ginsburg Precedent: A Historical Analysis," which looks at Ginsburg's confirmation hearings and details which questions she declined to answer.  They also released a report on their "Precedent, Not Politics" tour in which they took Roberts supporters to 12 states to meet with media outlets; the tour makes one last stop in Washington state tomorrow.

Judiciary Committee Democrat and potential presidential candidate Joe Biden e-mailed supporters in advance of the Roberts hearings next week, sending them the text of a recent speech he gave to the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy outlining "what's at stake" in the hearings, but not indicating how he'll vote.

The values debate
A new Pew poll, the New York Times writes, shows that 64% of Americans are in favor of teaching creationism alongside evolution; 42% believe in creationism, agreeing that "living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time”; and 38% favor replacing evolution with creationism.

The Washington Post says the poll shows that the so-called religion gap "may be widening, despite efforts by... prominent Democrats to talk about their faith and the religious underpinning of their positions."  The poll "found that 29 percent of the public sees the Democratic Party as 'generally friendly' toward religion, down from 40 percent a year ago...  A 55 percent majority continues to see the GOP as friendly toward religion."  Pew's director of survey research "said it appears that during the 2004 presidential race, Republicans succeeded in using... Kerry's support for abortion rights to raise doubts about the sincerity of " his Catholic faith, and that since then, "the charge that Democrats are anti-religious has been repeated in debates over judicial nominees, public displays of the Ten Commandments and the teaching of evolution in public schools."  But the poll also found that "45 percent said religious conservatives hold too much sway in the Republican Party."

Caulifornia
Pegged to Bush's two stops there, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's absence from both, the Los Angeles Times says that even though Bush has lost the state twice, with and without putting up a fight, it's simply too big and has too many electoral votes for future GOP presidential candidates to give up on.  Bush officials say he cares about California, but "clearly the perception exists among many voters that the state is low on Bush's list of priorities.  That poses a double challenge for Republicans looking ahead to 2008 - reassuring Californians that the party cares about them and finding a candidate who can win over social conservatives while staying in sync with the state's live-and-let-live philosophy."

2005 and 2006
Two weeks until New York’s September 13 Democratic mayoral primary, a New York Times poll shows that Fernando Ferrer is leading the field of candidates vying to challenge Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R) -- but that Ferrer has support from only 29% of registered Democrats (and needs 40% to avoid a runoff), while half of the Democrats polled said they would vote for Bloomberg if he were in the Democratic primary.  “Today, 59 percent of New Yorkers approve of the job [Bloomberg] is doing, 9 percentage points higher than his previous high of 50 percent in late June.”

The New York Post writes that Ferrer, a Yankees fan, and Mets supporter Anthony Weiner (D) turned the mayoral primary into a spat over baseball.  “Weiner claimed the Mets are the ‘clean team,’ while the Yankees are tainted because slugger Jason Giambi was on ‘the juice'…  Ferrer shot back that Weiner can't be sure all Met players are pure.  ‘Have you checked the cups?’ Ferrer said, referring to urine samples.”

In Virginia’s gubernatorial contest, Jerry Kilgore (R) yesterday unveiled his “Sportsmen for Kilgore” coalition to counter a similar group that Tim Kaine (D) recently announced, the Richmond Times-Dispatch says.  “But whereas Kaine's group kicked off its campaign last week by arguing that being pro-sportsmen means protecting wildlife, rivers and forests in addition to the Second Amendment, Kilgore's group put its focus squarely on the right to bear arms, claiming that Kaine is an unabashed advocate of gun control.”

And the Newark Star-Ledger reports that New Jersey local union leader Carla Katz, “whose financial and romantic links to gubernatorial candidate Sen. Jon Corzine sparked controversy on the campaign trail,” is now facing an election challenge of her own for the presidency of Communications Workers of American Local 1034.

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