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NEWSWEEK poll suggests President Bush could become Katrina's next casualty
Eye of the Political Storm
By Marcus Mabry
Updated: 1:31 p.m. ET Sept. 10, 2005

Sept. 10, 2005 - Hurricane Katrina claimed her first political casualty Friday. Michael Brown, the head of FEMA, the federal disaster readiness and response agency, was sidelined from the largest disaster relief project in the nation's history. Brown was recalled to Washington by his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. But a new NEWSWEEK Poll suggests the post-Katrina political storm may just be rising. And her ultimate casualty could be President George W. Bush.

In Katrina's wake, the president's popularity and job-approval ratings have dropped across the board. Only 38 percent of Americans approve of the way Bush is doing his job overall, a record-low for this president in the NEWSWEEK poll. (Fifty-five percent of Americans disapprove of his overall job performance.) And only 28 percent of Americans say they are "satisfied with the way things are going" in the country, down from 36 percent in August and 46 percent in December, after the president's re-election. This is another record low and two points below the satisfaction level recorded immediately after the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal came to light. Fully two-thirds of Americans are not satisfied with the direction of the country.

But Katrina's most costly impact could be a loss of faith in government generally, and the president, in particular. A majority of Americans (57 percent) say "government's slow response to what happened in New Orleans" has made them lose confidence in government's ability to deal with another major natural disaster. Forty-seven percent say it has made them lose confidence in the government's ability to prevent another terrorist attack like 9/11, but 50 percent say is has not. (Note: our question asked about "government" in general, so we cannot say whether respondents meant state, local, federal or a combo of any of the three.)

More critical to President Bush-and the GOP's future as the nation's majority party: most Americans, 52 percent, say they do not trust the president "to make the right decisions during a domestic crisis" (45 percent do). The numbers are exactly the same when the subject is trust of the president to make the right decisions during an international crisis.

Why the gloom? Forty percent of Americans say the federal government's response to the crisis in New Orleans was poor. Thirty-two percent say it was fair; 21 percent say it was good and five percent believe it was excellent. Americans don't think much of the local and state governments' responses either: 35 percent say state and local officials did a poor job and 34 percent say they did a fair job; 20 percent say they did a good job and five percent say an excellent job after the storm hit.

The Katrina effect is evident in how Americans rate the president personally. In every category, the view of the president is at all-time lows for the NEWSWEEK poll. Only 49 percent of Americans now believe the president has strong leadership qualities. The same percentage of registered voters feel that way, 49 percent-down from 63 percent the week before Bush's reelection. Only 42 percent of Americans believe the president cares about people like them; 44 percent of registered voters feel that way-down from 50 percent the week before the election. And only 49 percent of Americans and the same percentage of registered voters believe Bush is intelligent and well-informed-down from 59 percent before the election.

Similarly, public approval of the president's policies on issues from the economy (35 percent) to the war in Iraq (36 percent) to terrorism and homeland security (46 percent) have suffered. Demonstrating the widespread havoc that Katrina has wrought on the president's political fortunes-even far from issues of disaster response-for the first time in the four years since 9/11, more Americans disapprove of Bush's handling of terrorism and homeland security than approve of it.

Reflecting the tarnished view of the administration, only 38 percent of registered voters say they would vote for a Republican for Congress if the Congressional elections were held today, while 50 say they would vote for a Democrat.

The president and the GOP's greatest hope may be, ironically, how deeply divided the nation remains, even after national tragedy. The president's Republican base, in particular, remains extremely loyal. For instance, 53 percent of Democrats say the federal government did a poor job in getting help to people in New Orleans after Katrina. But just 19 percent of Republicans feel that way. In fact, almost half of Republicans (48 percent) either believes the federal government did a good job (37 percent) or an excellent job (11 percent) helping those stuck in New Orleans.

Not surprisingly, the Democrats are more forgiving of local and state governments (the New Orleans mayor and Louisiana governor are Democrats), though Democrats are not as forgiving as Republicans are of the Feds. More than a quarter (28 percent) of Democrats either believe the state and local governments did a good job (24 percent) or an excellent job (4 percent.) While 30 percent of Democrats believe the local and state governments did a poor job, 43 percent of Republicans believe the state and local officials did a poor job. (Thirty-five percent of Democrats and 29 percent of Republicans say they did a fair job.)

The deep partisan divide, evident in whom Americans blame for the slow relief effort, could act to brake any further fall in the president's support levels, particularly if Bush's base feels the Democrats or the media are piling on the president.

A more troubling finding of the NEWSWEEK Poll is that as divided as we are by party, Americans are even more divided by race. For instance, 66 percent of those polled say a "major reason" for government's slow response to the crisis in New Orleans was poor communication between federal, state and local officials. Fifty-seven percent say a major reason was that the destruction was more than expected and overwhelmed officials. Fifty-five percent believe that the incompetence of federal officials was to blame and 57 percent believe state and local officials' incompetence led to the slow response.

But whites and non-whites disagree sharply on the role of race and class in the tragedy. Fully 65 percent of non-whites believe that government was slow to rescue those trapped in New Orleans because they were black, while 64 percent of whites say race was not a cause at all of the government's slow response.

Overall, 22 percent of those polled say a "major reason" government action was slow was that New Orleans was "not a priority because the people affected were mostly African-American." But 47 percent of non-whites believe race was a "major reason;" only 13 percent of whites do. Meanwhile, 20 percent of whites and 53 percent of non-whites believe a "major reason" the response was slow was that most of those trapped were poor. (Overall, 29 percent of Americans believe the poverty of those affected was a major reason for the slow response.)

In general, 35 percent say that the heads of federal agencies such as FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security are most to blame for not getting help quickly enough to the people in New Orleans; just 17 percent say President Bush himself is to blame.

The question now is whether any of this will matter come the Congressional mid-term elections more than a year from now. The White House is hoping it won't.

For the NEWSWEEK poll, Princeton Survey Research Associates International interviewed 1,009 adults aged 18 and older between Sept. 8 and 9 by telephone. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.