Video: Previewing the speech
updated 9/15/2005 10:29:42 AM ET 2005-09-15T14:29:42

With approval ratings at an all-time low, President Bush took an unusual step and took personal responsibility for the failure of federal government in its response to Hurricane Katrina.  He plans to address the nation Thursday night on primetime television from New Orleans.

What is the message going to be? We have to share the blame for the failures or the past or I‘m in charge now? 

On Wednesday, MSNBC-TV's 'Hardball' offered a preview of what to expect in the speech and the political impact of his words.  David Gregory, Chief White House Correspondent for NBC News and Howard Fineman, Chief Political Correspondent for  Newsweek magazine, joined host Chris Matthews for the discussion.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HARDBALL HOST: Does the president have a sense now of how big this is? 

DAVID GREGORY, NBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. I don‘t think there‘s any question that, however late, they are now fully realizing that they have a huge human disaster on their hands and a growing political problem. 

I think what you have seen in the last couple of days, the president taking the rare step of taking the blame for the federal response, when just like week he said he didn‘t want to get into a blame game and there would be a time for accountability later, shows you that there‘s really no arguing with the images that have come out of New Orleans and elsewhere in the hurricane zone. 

There‘s no enemy to fight here for the president.  There‘s simply accountability for what went wrong.  And I think what we‘re seeing from David Shuster‘s reporting is that there are more ugly details to come about a botched recovery effort and response effort on all levels of government.  But there‘s so much attention, of course, on this administration, the federal officials. 

MATTHEWS: Maureen Dowd of The New York Times — and she can be tough — made a very tough statement today, Howard Fineman.  She said that the president keeps coming back to New Orleans to try to find that bullhorn that he had in his hand so admirably right after 9/11.  He keeps trying to find the platform and the voice to connect with the people, now almost three weeks later, the way he did three days after 9/11. 

Is that what is going on, the president trying to find a way to speak to his American people? 

HOWARD FINEMAN, NBC CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes.  And Maureen also said in that piece that it was too late for the president to have his bullhorn moment.  I agree with her in the narrow sense. 

But, in the larger sense, he has to show that he is the captain of this ship.  Only the federal government has the resources and the wherewithal to make the Gulf Coast whole again.  This is going to be the biggest construction or reconstruction project arguably in American history.  It‘s going to dominate at least the next year or two of his presidency.  He has to be seen and shown leading that effort. 

It‘s too late for him to have been ahead of the curve on the original disaster.  It‘s not too late for him to be the captain of the ship in reconstruction, which is what he has got to do.  And, ironically, the Republicans in Congress and he represent a conservative philosophy that always had its doubts about the power of government and the efficacy of government. 

Now this party that has not always been the party of government has to be the party of government big time. 

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, David Gregory.  You know the president.  You cover him.  You have been in close terms with him.  You know, there‘s an old political method.  It‘s called spin, whereby you take two steps.  The first step is, you admit your responsibility.  And then, while people are buying your message, you quickly redefine it to your advantage. 

Yesterday, the president accepted responsibility for federal mishaps and late behavior.  What is going to be the second message, that we really are responsible now, or is it going to be an effort to try to just dismiss some of the charges against him? 

GREGORY: I think there will still be an effort to deflect some of the accountability charges and to cast a wider net about what the state didn‘t do, about what New Orleans, as a city in its own disaster preparedness, didn‘t do. 

But I think Howard is right.  I mean, this is about eventually turning that corner and reasserting himself as the guy who can lead the way to rebuilding New Orleans, to preside over the renaissance of the city and the cutting of the ribbon, to get the right people in charge to cut through bureaucracy, and to, even if belatedly, be the champion of the people who have left homeless by Katrina. 

But here is the difficult part and what I think is so significant.  Three days after 9/11, when I was with the president in Lower Manhattan, he was very much at one with the people of New York.  There were people clapping on the streets as the motorcade went by, had never seen that before, because he was part of the compassion.  He was part of how we all felt victimized. 

I think, in this case, he has been detached from the compassion in this story and that sense of being victims in all this.  He was late to that.  There really is such difficulty in recovering from that. 

MATTHEWS: I think that is so true, Howard.  He connected with the tragedy of 9/11.  He connected with the victims, like the firefighters.  He stood with his arm around one of them.  He connected with the mission.  We are going to get these guys that did this.  And he took us right to Afghanistan. 

Is he going to personalize this effort to rebuild this part of the country down here, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, the way he personalized his leadership of the Iraq war?

FINEMAN: Well, he may try, but it‘s going to be difficult.  It‘s going to be very difficult. 

And one of the reasons is, it‘s such a sprawling effort.  There isn‘t one moment or place that symbolizes the whole thing.  And the economics and politics of the country have changed.  I was talking to some Republicans on the Hill today who were saying, one thing they worry about down the road is, if the recovery doesn‘t come quickly, if a mayor in some small town in Louisiana or Mississippi or Alabama who is a Republican by nature is told, you know what, pal, you‘re not getting your bridge rebuilt for a couple of years because of other constraints on the budget, that is going to cause a political problem for George Bush within his own base.

It‘s going to be difficult for him to sell both the reconstruction of the Gulf and the continued reconstruction of Iraq at the same time.  That‘s going to be very difficult, a lot of pressure on him in that regard.

GREGORY: You know what else is significant, Chris?  Already, from conservatives, there‘s no rallying around President Bush.  There are real questions about how much money is already being allocated for the hurricane zone.  There are real questions about the efficacy and the wisdom of creating the Department of Homeland Security and whether bureaucracy has really been overcome by having one central place to deal with disasters.

So, you have got elements in the president‘s own party beginning to wonder about his approach, at the same time as big questions about this 9/11 president, the security president, and the government‘s ability to respond to a storm like this, let alone another major terror attack — which they have said is going to come.

FINEMAN: Chris, they‘re not going to be able to do all the reconstruction immediately.  It‘s going to take years.  And the process of making and choosing priorities there is a political mine-field for the president. 

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, Howard, and then David, the president sounds like he, according to what you are saying, both of you, the president is going to take personal charge.  He is going to be the job boss, the kind of person that people talked about down here of somebody being put in charge as sort of the viceroy of the president, the man in charge or the woman in charge. 

Is President Bush, bottom line, going to be the personal man, the personal commander in chief of this effort to rebuild this part of the country?  Howard first.

FINEMAN: I don‘t think he can.  He is going to try to have it both ways.  And to the extent that he doesn‘t do that in the speech tomorrow, he is going to be criticized for it.  He needs to appoint someone somewhere to be an overall charge, the way Russel Honore, the American general, the Army general, was.

GREGORY: Right. 

FINEMAN: He needs the equivalent on the civilian side on the reconstruction side of Honore of the Army. 

MATTHEWS: Do they believe that?  Do they believe that, David? 

GREGORY: Well, I do.  I think he is going to find a strong person on the ground.  I think the president is going to spend most of his time trying to connect with the spirit of this effort now as the political leader, as a kind of champion, something that he has not done yet. 

Chris Matthews will anchor special coverage of the president's speech, Thursday at 9 p.m. ET. You can watch 'Hardball' each night at 5 and 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC. 

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