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Taking the temperature of the country

Olbermann and Fineman discuss the latest poll numbers and D.C.'s response
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With several new polls out analyzing the government's performance in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, on Thursday, 'Countdown' invited Howard Fineman, chief political correspondent of "Newsweek" magazine and MSNBC political analyst, to help explain the mood of the country. 

To read an excerpt of Fineman's conversation with Keith Olbermann, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

KEITH OLBERMANN: The polls first.

Yesterday, the Gallup seemed to suggest that the criticism of the president was split entirely along party lines.  but these most recent ones from CBS and Zogby, which closed yesterday, are suggesting the opposite.  What did we miss that may have changed things and when did we miss it? 

FINEMAN:  I think what's going on here is not the job approval number that is sinking, because that is divided along partisan lines, but another number that pollsters are always asking about, which is, do you think the country is going in the right direction or the wrong track? 

And those numbers are cratering big time, as Dick Cheney might say.  I talked to a Republican pollster today who said that his numbers on that show that the American people think that the country is on the right track 32 percent, on the wrong track, 62 percent.  He said that number is worse than any that he has seen for any president since the dark days of Bush I's presidency. 

And that's what dragging these other numbers down.  People are looking at television, both out of New Orleans and out of the White House pressroom.  They're seeing arguing.  They're seeing bickering.  They're seeing a lack of leadership.  They're seeing a lack of progress.  And that is emblematic of their fears about the economy, about oil prices, about the war in Iraq.  You name it.  The American people are in a very dark mood and, eventually, that takes down the standing of the president. 

OLBERMANN:  The media criticism from the right ...(Robert) Novak as an example, the stuff in "The Union Leader," it sounds like it would be a huge surprise, especially in the White House.  Is it? 

FINEMAN:  Well, I think they were surprised, obviously, initially by the intensity of the politics of this, because they were late getting going on it to begin with. 

The Republicans I have been talking to -- and I have been focusing on Republicans -- have said that it wasn't only the late start of the president.  It wasn't only those critical 24 to 36 hours of his showing concern.  It was that one photo.  And it's not the guitar photo.  It is the photo of him looking out the window of Air Force One from 30,000 feet above as he is heading back east, a day late, arguably, to take control of the situation. 

That, according to the Republican strategist I talked to, was emblematic of a certain aloofness and distance from the situation that, if pictures are 1,000 words, that spoke millions.  And the irony is, it is the complete opposite of the reaction to the photo of after 9/11, where he's on the phone commanding the situation from Air Force One. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  That is "I can see my house from here" photo. 

FINEMAN:  Exactly.  Exactly. 

OLBERMANN:  Submarines and planes when being tracked relief chaff to interfere with radar.  Obviously, so does Scott McClellan.  He did not use the phrase blame game today, but, in spite of that fact, has the White House got some sort of response plan to this sort of broad-based or expanding political nightmare?  What are they doing about it, because, just today, the Dick Cheney incident in Gulfport?

This is a political machine that kept Dick Cheney and George Bush hermetically sealed for four-and-a-half years in public.  How could they have messed that up today and let that piece of tape go out to a tense world? 

FINEMAN:  Well, I think it is somewhat emblematic of their loss of control of this story.  And they're desperately trying to get ahead of it. 

I was up on Hill tonight.  I just came from there, where the Republican leadership in the Congress passed the biggest single spending bill in history, $50 billion enacted in a day.  They're not even sure exactly what all the money is for.  So, ironically, a Republican president that supposedly comes from a party of fiscal responsibility, they're throwing money at the problem, justifiably, I think, but with very few controls, to try to get ahead of the story. 

It may help the Republicans in Congress, although I'm not sure.  I don't think it necessarily helps the president.  Everybody thinks that the next couple of weeks and whatever signs of progress can be shown in the Gulf are going to be critical to the president's ability to have any kind of agenda and any kind of leadership role politically over the next year or two. 

OLBERMANN:  (Wis. Rep. James) Sensenbrenner voted against that bill today on just that issue about accountability and just throwing money out the window. 

FINEMAN:  Well, but it didn't happen on the Senate side.  They all approved it unanimously. 


FINEMAN:  And that's the way it is going to be for a long time.  This is bigger than the Tennessee Valley Authority, bigger than Manhattan Project, really big.