White House pays the price for delays in accountability

The White House's slow response to Katrina angered the public, but may be forgivable. Its obstinance, however, is a much tougher stigma to overcome.

The White House's slow response to Katrina angered the public, but may be forgivable. Its obstinance, however, is a much tougher stigma to overcome.

Political fallout from the federal government's slow initial response to Hurricane Katrina is proving difficult to manage for an administration that is loath to acknowledge mistakes.

As this page was going to press, President Bush acknowledged for the first time that the federal government hadn't performed well in its reaction to the disaster.

Before that, the Bush administration had been scrambling to restore its damaged credibility by suggesting reporters not point fingers, while its operatives simultaneously placed blame on state and local officials in Louisiana for their feeble response to the disaster. The White House was hoping recent actions, such as the President's regular visits to the region and the resignation of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director Michael Brown, would lead Americans to forget how the federal government bungled rescue and relief operations in the Katrina's immediate aftermath.

If polls are any indication, the President's communications strategy has failed to gain much traction. Prior to Katrina making landfall, Bush's poll numbers had sunk to the lowest levels of his presidency. The most recent polls reveal further erosion in confidence, with a majority of Americans expressing disapproval of Bush's initial handling of the crisis along the Gulf Coast.

"What's missing from the White House response is some kind of candid acknowledgement of what the shortcomings were," says Jim McCarthy, principal of Washington, DC-based McCarthy Communications. "In any crisis that involves some act of God or unexpected event, whether it's Tylenol, a syringe in the Pepsi, or a hurricane, the public is willing to hear that mistakes were made or some problems weren't handled well. But you've got to say that candidly."

Corporate lawyers and communicators, particularly those involved in product liability cases, recognize that being forthcoming with information during a crisis remains the best strategy, says Gordon Adams, director of security policy studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. The same rule applies to government officials. "In politics, it's always better to take the hit up-front," he says. "You step up and say, 'We blew it; not good; we're cleaning up our act.'"

When the White House took on a communications strategy spotlighting the ineffective response of state and local officials, some in the news media followed the lead. As images of a stepped-up federal response in New Orleans started hitting TV screens, the heat on Bush eased slightly, and the focus shifted to what state and local officials didn't do.

"The Bush administration is trying to blame the state and local officials for the bulk of this, and certainly there's enough fault to go around," says Ivan Eland, a senior fellow and director at the Independent Institute. "But people may still remember that the federal response was bad and more people died than needed to. That [will] be the defining event of the matter."

The government's game plan

In order to keep staffers on-message in conversations with the press, the public affairs staff at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has regular morning meetings and then holds several sessions throughout the day with department-level communications directors and public affairs officials in the field, according to DHS assistant press secretary Joanna Gonzalez. The 50-person communications team at DHS headquarters will often delegate questions about specific issues, such as immigration or emergency response, to the relevant agencies that fall under the giant department's umbrella, she says.

"We've had very good relationships with our beat reporters" in the wake of Katrina, Gonzalez explains.

But Adams notes that Katrina's destruction is not subject to the same kind of message control that the Bush administration has been able to use effectively during the war in Iraq.

"This is not like Iraq, where reporters are constrained," he says. "You've got a million people scattered around the US and a lot of reporters on the story."

In an August 29 memo to DHS secretary Michael Chertoff, Brown indicated that he had told his employees that they would be expected to "convey a positive image of disaster operations to government officials, community organizations, and the general public."

In that same memo, which was sent five hours after Katrina made landfall, Brown asked Chertoff for authorization for 1,000 FEMA staff to go into the flood and suggested they be given two days to respond. FEMA also ordered the Red Cross and Salvation Army not to go into the New Orleans disaster zone. Louisiana eventually called up 4,000 of its National Guard, and it was three days before active duty military were mobilized and sent into the flood zones.

While the White House saw some success in spreading the blame to state and local officials, McCarthy contends that reporters are still seeking opportunities to target federal officials. "I don't think anything the White House has said or done has mitigated that at all," he says.

McCarthy, who specializes in crisis communications, predicts the Katrina story will continue to beleaguer the Bush administration, "especially because activist groups and political ideologues are going to be using it for political leverage going through the next elections. That's going to give it oxygen for some time."

The most effective PR messages, he explains, have come from first lady Laura Bush, when she stepped forward and said the accusations about racial and class motivations were irresponsible and inappropriate. "She took the criticisms by the horns and turned them around. That's what you've got to do," he says.

The President is also attracting fire from groups such as MoveOn.org and the Democratic Party, McCarthy notes.

"Simply using clich?s about blame games and finger-pointing [won't] inhibit that," he says. "You must take on attackers directly, hold them personally accountable for any kind of irresponsible statements."

The subdued atmosphere surrounding Brown's departure last week contrasted with the upbeat message the President conveyed on September 2, four days after the hurricane hit, when he told FEMA's director, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."

"One of the big indicators that Bush is out of touch is he didn't fire Brown right away," Eland argues. "He just took him off the scene and then tested the waters, and that wasn't enough. Then he got rid of him."

Comparing reaction to that of 9/11

The public also recognizes that Bush's initial reaction to Katrina was much different than it was to 9/11, argues Leonard Steinhorn, professor for the School of Communication at American University in Washington.

"The biggest problem right now is the comfort and empathy the White House showed after [9/11] seemed to be missing in this incident," he explains. "And a lot of people were forced to ask why this particular disaster did not get the same kind of attention as [9/11]."

Based on the way Katrina brought race and poverty to the forefront, Steinhorn says the Bush administration's brand of "cultural populism" may lose its appeal. The federal government's response in New Orleans "suggests in very powerful images that when action is required, the concern for the common man withers away," he says.

Whether the slow response hurts political incumbents in 2006 elections depends on what lessons the public takes away from the disaster, he adds.

McCarthy contends the White House has an "almost instinctive stubborn refusal to acknowledge any shortcoming, and that, from a strategic point of view, will be a real albatross for them if they try to turn around the perception of how this has been handled."

As each day goes by, any benefit the administration could reap from admitting its shortcomings erodes, he says. The President's statement on Tuesday that he takes responsibility for the government's shortcomings may stop the bleeding. The question remains whether it can save the patient.

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