updated 9/6/2005 9:17:09 AM ET 2005-09-06T13:17:09

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First glance
Under fire for being slow to act in Katrina's aftermath, President Bush was lightning quick to name John Roberts as his chief justice nominee, aiming to have Roberts preside over the Court when the new session begins in just shy of four weeks.  Roberts' confirmation hearings have been postponed to allow participants to attend the Rehnquist funeral tomorrow, and to give the Senate time to pass more Katrina-related legislation.  Senate Majority Leader Frist will announce a new hearing schedule this morning.  Despite Democratic talk of "higher stakes," Roberts' odds of winning confirmation haven't changed.  Indeed, this may be just about the only aspect of President Bush's fall agenda that hasn't.

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In a schedule that must differ greatly from how he'd planned to spend this first day back to business as usual in Washington, Bush meets with his Cabinet at 10:00 am, and with reps from volunteer groups and charities taking part in the hurricane relief effort at 11:15 am.  He makes a statement on federal efforts to aid school districts and displaced students at 2:10 pm.  And he meets with the bipartisan congressional leadership at 2:35 pm.  But instead of discussing tax reform, budget cuts and the still-outstanding spending bills, immigration reform, or any of the other items that had previously been on the agenda for September, Bush and the Hill leaders will focus on disaster relief.

Has the hurricane changed the political landscape as extensively as it has changed the Gulf Coast?  Will the fallout for Bush and the GOP be limited to what's already visible, or will it reach further in ways we can't yet foresee?  We have a few benchmarks to go on.  Three polls conducted in late August showed that a month of increased violence in Iraq and (even pre-Katrina) soaring gas prices had driven Bush's job approval rating down to 45%.  A Washington Post/ABC poll conducted on Friday, heading into the Labor Day holiday, showed the public evenly split on Bush's response to Katrina, with 46% approving and 47% disapproving.

Presidents usually see a boost in their poll standing during times of crisis, so it's notable that Bush starts off flat.  Beyond that the poll offers the briefest of snapshots, since public opinion may continue to shift during what's expected to be a very tough week of disturbing images and mounting death tolls.

In the aftermath of September 11, Bush and Republicans were operating from two positions of strength: their built-in advantage over Democrats on national security, and the presence of identifiable opponents to target and to help the GOP foster an "us versus them" climate in which critics of the Administration's approach to the war against terror could be aligned with "them."  The hurricane, on the other hand, leaves Bush and Republicans with no one else to blame for any perceived shortcomings, although they're now saying that some blame lies with ill-prepared state and local officials.  And to the extent that the federal response to the New Orleans flooding was seen as slow, it may fuel the longtime rap against the GOP that the party doesn't care about average people, especially the poor and African-Americans.

Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman has made concerted efforts to court African-American voters.  Democratic strategists concede that while older African-Americans who remember the civil rights movement will stay loyal to their party, younger people who feel less of a connection to the movement may be more open to supporting Republicans.  This event, however, could be a galvanizing moment that erases some or all of the gains Mehlman had made -- gains which, while marginal, can matter in close elections.

Democrats in Washington were hoping to hammer in an image of a callous, uncaring GOP with today's scheduled Senate vote to permanently repeal the estate tax.  Frist had promised fiscal conservatives that it would be the first vote of the fall.  However, he wound up postponing the vote indefinitely in his reshuffling of the Senate schedule.  (An e-mail from the American Conservative Union to supporters still declares that "Today is the day!!!")   Democratic leaders and lawmakers -- including both Clintons -- are also calling for the creation of an independent commission to examine problems with the response.

But maybe even more troubling for the White House than what their response to Katrina may cost them among swing voters or African-Americans is that conservative interests, like the Wall Street Journal editorial page today, are questioning Bush's approach to governing, including the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.  Bush may also face questions from fiscal conservatives about his approach to spending as the price tag grows for hurricane relief.

Still, if the hurricane threatens to exacerbate Bush and Republicans' political problems coming out of a rough August, it may also have opened up some new opportunities for them, providing them with new justification for pre-existing priorities ranging from drilling for oil in ANWR, to the construction of new refineries, to increased offshore drilling, to the extension of the Bush tax cuts.  House GOP leaders talked late last week about an economic stimulus package, including tax cuts, to compensate for Katrina's adverse effects on the nation's economy.

And, after Katrina gave Bush the opportunity to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve as a visible effort to provide some relief from gas prices, members of Congress from both parties now have added motivation to hold hearings on gas prices and the oil industry.  The Senate Energy Committee holds one today, and its House counterpart may follow suit.

Hurricane economics
The "national average price for gasoline crossed the $3-a-gallon mark for the first time Monday in the latest AAA survey, tying the record for highest ever on an inflation-adjusted basis...  Supply disruptions caused by the hurricane are almost sure to raise prices further before settling down in about two weeks..."  - USA Today

"Gasoline was last this expensive in March 1981, after Iran's revolution.  The price then was $1.417 a gallon, which would equal $3.05 today after adjusting for inflation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics."  - Los Angeles Times

Last Friday, Merrill Lynch's research department wrote to clients, "You Will Never Hear These Words Again: 'Don’t worry, gas prices are still below 1980 levels in real terms' (as if that ever mattered except to economists - oh yes, Mr. Service Station Man, may I pay you in 1980 dollars?).  As if comparing things to 1980 was supposed to make anyone feel better in any event - it was one of the worst recessionary phases the economy endured in modern times."

Still, the price of oil is receding, notes the Wall Street Journal, which also comments in another story, "Hurricane Katrina is the biggest test in years of the economy's resilience.  But recent history offers encouraging, though by no means definitive evidence of the U.S. economy's ability to bounce back from shocks.  Economic growth has become significantly less volatile during the past two decades."

Bloomberg reports that Fed "policy makers aren't convinced they need to stop raising rates, even if their Sept. 20 statement is reworded to give them more room to pause later if data warrants...  Bush and Treasury Secretary John Snow both said they met with Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan last week and that he shares a view that economic disruption may be temporary.  Greenspan hasn't spoken publicly since the storm."

USA Today updates the unemployment situation in the hurricane-ravaged region:

Hurricane politics
The Wall Street Journal asks, "How could the world's biggest superpower fail so badly in protecting and rescuing its residents from a natural disaster so frequently foretold?"  Noting that progress was made over the weekend, the story takes a long look at the factors that contributed to the government's slow response.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page: "The American public... won't fall for political opportunism.  By the same token, Americans also won't have much patience for White House claims that state and local officials were the greater incompetents...  Mr. Bush is going to have to recognize the obvious initial failure of the Department of Homeland Security in its first big post-9/11 test.  The President created this latest huge federal bureaucracy, against the advice of many of us."  The kicker: "We've thought for some time that Mr. Bush's reticence was hurting him on Iraq, and that he needs to be both more visible and more assertive in making his case to Americans.  After Katrina, we'd say that's imperative."

The Washington Post observed yesterday that Bush's "success in undoing the negative perceptions of the past few days could be critical to sustaining the political capital necessary to achieve other objectives of his second term."  The story adds, "Working in Bush's favor as he deals with these multiple challenges is a record of success at moments of crisis,... as well as a political resilience and resolve that have repeatedly helped him to rise above low expectations."  That said, "anger has been focused on Bush and his administration to a degree unprecedented in his presidency."

A New York Times analysis says Bush’s challenge “is to repair the political damage caused by the government's slow response to the disaster and to counter the sense that his initial flyover in Air Force One on the way home from vacation and his on-the-ground visit to the region last Friday had sounded some sour notes - all without looking political.”

As Bush toured Louisiana yesterday, he and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco "kept their distance, like an estranged political couple making an obligatory joint appearance."  The Boston Globe says that Blanco did not know Bush was planning on visiting the region until yesterday morning, and was not "immediately" asked to tour with him.

The Washington Times covers Bush "ignoring" Democratic criticism and touring the ravaged region once again.

The Wall Street Journal says the Administration "is preparing a long-term recovery plan for the Gulf Coast aimed at proving its sensitivity to Hurricane Katrina's poorest victims."

The Boston Globe's Canellos observes that "searing images of New Orleans... could well mark America's rediscovery of its poor."  He notes that "the 1927 flood is remembered not only for creating the imperative for federal disaster relief, but for ushering in an era of big government.  Perhaps that is why Bush and the Republican-led Congress are rushing to dispel any notion that they were slow off the mark..."

Bloomberg points out that "Bush's response to Sept. 11 played to his strengths: uniting the country behind a direct and tough U.S. military response.  The disaster along the U.S. Gulf Coast exposed the holes in his smaller-government philosophy: the vulnerability of those citizens not part of Bush's 'ownership society' and the necessity of massive government action in such crises.  The contrast between the two events... may mark a turning point for Bush and advocates of limited government."

USA Today says that "after the situation is under control, Bush will order an inquiry into delays in federal aid."

Note how both Clintons, despite Bill Clinton's central role in the relief effort, are calling for the establishment of an independent commission to look into what went wrong.  The former president said of New Orleans evacuees yesterday that the government "failed those people in the beginning."  Coincidentally, Hillary Clinton today attends the groundbreaking for construction of a new transportation hub at the World Trade Center.

The Roberts (re-)nomination
USA Today says that Roberts "was perfectly positioned to move over to the chief's slot," but the move "reopens the debate over who should replace O'Connor's moderate voice on the divided court at a time when the Bush administration is battling criticism over its response to Hurricane Katrina."  The story asks whether the White House "now has the appetite for a knock-down, drag-out fight over a Supreme Court nomination."

The Wall Street Journal observes that Bush tapped Roberts "[a]t a time of increasing political weakness..., choosing to avoid -- or at least delay -- a fresh ideological battle over the Supreme Court...  As Hurricane Katrina, rising gas prices and Iraq have sent Mr. Bush's poll ratings to the lowest levels of his administration, the Roberts nomination in July... has been one of the few moves to go smoothly for the White House lately."

The AP writes that Bush’s selection of Roberts for chief justice “was the safest choice Bush could make…  Bush's weakening political standing could complicate things for Roberts, according to strategists in both parties. “

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein noted yesterday, before Bush's announcement of Roberts as his chief justice pick, that "with Bush's sagging poll numbers and the turbulent aftermath of Hurricane Katrina threatening to disrupt much of his legislative agenda, the debates over Roberts and Rehnquist's successor could offer the president his best chance to energize his core supporters and generate victories on Capitol Hill."

"Conservative-leaning groups also were quick to reiterate their opinion of Judge Roberts and warned against efforts at stalling," says the Washington Times.

But the Washington Post notes that some "conservatives worry that Bush has given Democrats an opening by naming" Roberts to succeed Rehnquist.  "Because Rehnquist was a solid conservative and O'Connor a centrist, the argument goes, liberals will fight much harder to keep a conservative -- such as Roberts -- from getting the O'Connor seat, whereas the philosophy of Rehnquist's successor is less vital to them."

Knight-Ridder reports, "Democrats and liberal groups say Roberts' past opposition to expanded affirmative action and voting-rights laws should get extra scrutiny, especially in light of the disproportionate suffering by poor black residents of New Orleans."

The Chicago Tribune looks at Roberts' career and recounts how talks with colleagues reveal "several themes and principles likely to guide and define him as a justice."

Roberts' new nomination has reignited debate over whether more of his records should be released.  The Boston Globe says "the demand for records also exposes a deeper rift congressional Democrats have with the Bush administration over secrecy and the role of Congress as a check on executive branch power."

The Washington Post said yesterday in its coverage of a possible delay in the Roberts hearings that Democrats "support a delay for three reasons: They feel the hurricane's many poor and African American refugees deserve to have Congress suspend its routine for a few days...; civil rights leaders should not have to address two major issues... at the same time; and finally, committee Democrats and outside witnesses would find it politically awkward to criticize Roberts... during or just after the chief justice's memorial services."

The Hill reports that lobbyists with ties to Senate Democrats predict that as many as 25 of them could vote to confirm Roberts.  The lobbyists "said the Democrats could suffer politically if their Roberts strategy misfires.  Left-wing ideological groups are pressuring Democratic lawmakers to expose Roberts’s conservative record without workable grounds for a fight."

More court politics
The Los Angeles Times notes that O'Connor's continued presence on the Court "is likely to have more symbolic than practical significance...  because a justice's votes count only when an opinion is issued, not when the high court hears a case."

The Washington Post revisits the political backlash over the Supreme Court's decision on eminent domain: "a decision first seen as a key legal victory for cities that want to use eminent domain for private projects has turned into a major setback on the political front for pro-development interests.  The popular backlash has slowed or blocked many pending projects, as developers, their bankers and local governments suddenly face public furor...  Three states have already passed new laws in response..."

2005 and 2006
Turning to Virginia’s gubernatorial contest, the Richmond Times-Dispatch covers yesterday’s Labor Day parade in Buena Vista, VA, where all three candidates -- Tim Kaine (D), Jerry Kilgore (R), and Russ Potts (I) -- shared the same stage, perhaps for the last time in this race (since Kilgore has refused to agree to any debate with Potts, unless Potts reaches 15% in the polls).  The paper also writes that Kilgore is going up with two statewide ads today, one on education and the other on transportation.

In New York’s race for mayor, another poll finds that Mayor Bloomberg (R) would actually triumph in the Democratic primary -- if he were allowed to participate.  The New York Post: “The poll found nearly a quarter of Democratic voters still not sure which of the four Democratic candidates to support - an unusual situation, since the primary is Tuesday.”

Bloomberg reports that "Americans who own U.S. stock mutual funds are paying about 6 percent less in annual management fees than they did before New York Attorney General" and 2006 gubernatorial candidate "Eliot Spitzer began his assault on industrywide trading abuses."


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