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Bush: ‘We have to be ready’

Brian Williams talks with President  Bush in New Orleans about that city's recovery, FEMA's future, gas prices and Bush's latest poll numbers.

My conversation with President Bush followed his visit with volunteer home builders Habitat for Humanity, working on the so-called "Musicians' Village." Donated money is paying for houses to be built so the musicians can come back here to live. I asked the president about the proposal to kill the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Brian Williams: Mr. President, while you were in the air this morning, Senators Collins and Lieberman came out with their report. They said they have recommended to abolish FEMA. I have some quotes here. They said it's been discredited, demoralized, it's dysfunctional, and that FEMA is beyond repair. Your thoughts?

President Bush: My thoughts are is that we have to make sure it functions well. We're coming into a hurricane season. I ordered an executive branch review of what went wrong in Katrina. The Congress is doing its part, as well. And what we need to do is take recommendations, and make sure as hurricane season approaches, that FEMA and all branches are ready to respond.

Some of the things that we found, I think the Congress found as well, is we need to pre-position assets better, make sure there's clear coordination between the federal, state and local governments. Obviously there was a communications problem, as you well know, and we have pre-position communications equipment, or have communications equipment ready that is available that will help us in case of a big storm.

I welcome suggestions. I think the job ... I know my job is to work with relevant agencies and get them ready. I was talking to Governor Blanco, Secretary Chertoff has been down here recently, and the coordination is much better, obviously, this time around than last time around, and we just pray there is not a storm, but if there is, we have to be ready for it.

Williams: I’m going to read you a quote from that speech you gave that early night in Jackson Square here in New Orleans: “We will do what it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives. And all who question the future of the Crescent City need to know there's no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again.” Do you still stand by those words?

Bush: Absolutely.

Williams: And are you confident the levees are going to be here for the start of hurricane season?

Bush: I am. Step one is to make sure that people have got confidence in the levee system, and we said that we will have by June 1st, the levees up to pre-Katrina or better, and that will happen. I think there's about $6 billion of requests that will get the levees big enough to help with the 100-year flood plain, to guarantee against a 100-year flood, and then there's a study going on for further rebuilding, but yes, I believe strongly that we'll fulfill a commitment on the levees. And I also believe strongly that when Congress passes the supplemental, with the CDBG money, which is code word for housing money for people, that we have a chance to rebuild this city, and it's going to come back. And you and I are on this site, and volunteers from around the country are helping to rebuild New Orleans, one house at a time. This is National Volunteer Week, and I'm urging people to come down and help.

Williams: There have been some changes around you. You've got a new chief of staff, you've got a new press secretary, your secretary of defense has been under fire. Last night we reported on “Nightly News,” in our history of polling you, you are at a low number. Does this weigh on you, considering you will need popularity to get what you want in your second term?

Bush: You know, it is an interesting environment we're in. This economy is strong, we're the fastest-growing major industrialized nation in the world. We've added 5.1 million new jobs in two-and-a-half years, national unemployment rate is at 4.7 percent, home ownership is an all-time high. There is a strong economy, and yet there is a certain unease. I think some of it has to do with gasoline prices, which I addressed the other day. Look, we're dependent on oil, and when demand for oil goes up worldwide, it affects the price at the gasoline pump, and we've got to get off oil. And therefore Congress and the president will work together to diversify away from oil by using new technologies.

You know, Brian, you've covered this a lot. There's a war. There's uncertainty in the Middle East, there's Iraq, there's Iran, and that creates, even though the economy is strong, a sense of, you know, unease, but that, it just means that we've got to complete the mission, and we will. We're making good progress in Iraq, even though it's still a violent place, but there's a new government up and running, and I'm confident we'll succeed.

Williams: But you would rather not go into a second term at 36 percent approval?

Bush: Well, I'm going to go into a second term and work my hardest, and you know, the American president, we've got a chance to get competitive initiatives out, we've got a chance to extend some of the tax cuts, got a chance to do a lot of things, and I look forward to working with Congress to get it done. I've been up in the polls, and I've been down in the polls, but I'm going to continue doing what I think is right for the country.

Williams: Last question, this is the other side of gas prices. Exxon earnings are out today, $88 billion and change, it's bigger than the GDP of the United Arab Emirates, of what is it, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, basically a billion dollars a day. Can you understand the anger? Folks are out there spending $3-plus to fill up their cars and pickup trucks. Do you get the visceral response?

Bush: Of course. People don’t — you know, the increase of gas at the pump is like a tax on the working people, it's like a tax on small businesses, of course I understand that.  The fundamental question is what do we do about that, and my answer is, first of all, we’ve got to diversify away from oil. First thing, this federal government has got to make sure no one's price-gouging people, as well as the Federal Trade Commission, and we'll protect the consumers in terms of being honesty in marketplace. We need more refineries, we haven't built a refinery since the early ’70s. And part of the reason why gas is up [is] demand larger than supply. Thirdly, we've got to make sure people have incentives to buy these hybrid vehicles, which are making a big difference in terms of gas mileage and therefore helps consumers conserve, but the ultimate solution is to promote ethanol, and plug-in batteries, hybrid batteries for plug-in vehicles, and eventually hydrogen as a way to ... listen, part of the reason there's uncertainty is that we're in time of change, we've got to go from a hydrocarbon economy to an economy that is no longer dependent upon oil, and that's where we're headed.