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Many cooks stir the pot in U.S. recovery effort

With President Bush under fire for a poor early reaction to Hurricane Katrina, the large cast of sometimes-changing aides compelled to respond is contributing to a perception that Bush hasn't taken complete control of the situation himself.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., left, makes a statement after a meeting with President Bush at the White House on Thursday. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., right, looks on. Susan Walsh / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

There are an awful lot of chiefs around the White House these days when it comes to Hurricane Katrina.

There’s Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, whose portfolio has swelled to give him not only command of the massive nuts-and-bolts response operation, but also the job of the president’s primary daily briefer and oversight of a White House task force set up to coordinate federal agencies’ hurricane activities.

There’s Andy Card, who as White House chief of staff is the supervisory point person for all things Katrina, even as domestic policy adviser Claude Allen runs the day-to-day doings and policy deliberations of the task force.

Then there’s Vice President Dick Cheney, whom Bush dropped into the mix Tuesday when he announced he was sending his No. 2 to the region to ride herd on any government red tape that might be getting in the way of meeting storm victims’ still-urgent needs.

At the same time, the White House hasn’t ruled out appointing a high-profile outside figure, such as a retired military officer, to a czar-like job overseeing all federal recovery efforts.

There’s nothing out of the ordinary about a White House having several people overseeing different portions of such an enormous effort — in which almost the entire half-million population of New Orleans has been relocated elsewhere, possibly for months or longer, and other Gulf Coast states look as though they were sent through a shredder.

A question of ‘who’s on first’
But in this case, with the president under fire for a poor early reaction to the storm, the large cast of sometimes-changing aides being thrown at the response is contributing to a perception that the president has not taken complete control of the situation himself, said Paul Light, a professor of organizational studies at New York University.

“It’s just reinforcing this image that the federal government doesn’t know who’s on first,” he said.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said there is no need for confusion about who is running things. “This is a massive catastrophe, and it requires a massive response with all hands on deck,” he said. “There are clear lines of authority and responsibility. ... Ultimately the president is in charge.”

As Katrina moved toward and slammed into the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown was the official most often giving Bush storm updates. Now, that person is Brown’s boss — Chertoff, the hard-charging ex-prosecutor who is now one of the first people Bush hears from since a morning hurricane briefing became a fixture on his daily schedule.

Officials under fire
On Wednesday, amid escalating calls for Brown to be fired, the White House said Bush retains confidence in him. But though Brown is still in the Gulf Coast region directing the on-the-ground response and giving updates to the press, there is no question his public presence has faded.

On Sunday, Chertoff was dispatched by the administration to be its face on all five television news shows, after Brown’s earlier damage-control efforts met with little success.

And while Brown was by Bush’s side as he first visited the region last Friday, he remained behind the scenes during the president’s second Gulf Coast trip on Monday. It was Chertoff who strode to Bush’s helicopter in front of the cameras in Baton Rouge, La.

Deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin, an amiable former volunteer firefighter who recently added intelligence, defense and homeland security matters to his issue list and often travels with Bush, assumed a prominent role from the beginning. In Crawford, Texas, with the president when the storm was bearing down on the region, Hagin was the top White House representative in communication with federal, state and local officials in the region when Bush didn’t participate personally.

Chief of staff weighs in
Now, Card — who returned to Washington from vacation in Maine last Wednesday, the same day as Bush — has taken over the top administrative duties. Other regular hurricane meeting participants are White House counselor Dan Bartlett, charged with shaping the president’s message and image, and the president’s homeland security adviser, Fran Townsend.

As for the White House task force, it brings the heads of 12 of the 15 Cabinet agencies so far, plus the heads of the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House budget office, to the same table to try to maximize efficiency.

But in a sign of the many challenges before the administration — such as finding long-term housing for storm evacuees, educating their children, getting government benefits to far-flung recipients, draining New Orleans and rebuilding decimated towns — that task force has already spawned nine working groups.