September 14, 2005

President Says He's Responsible in Storm Lapses



WASHINGTON, Sept. 13 - President Bush said on Tuesday that he bore responsibility for any failures of the federal government in its response to Hurricane Katrina and suggested that he was unsure whether the country was adequately prepared for another catastrophic storm or terrorist attack.

"Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government, and to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility," Mr. Bush said in an appearance in the East Room with President Jalal Talabani of Iraq. "I want to know what went right and what went wrong."

In response to a reporter who asked if Americans, in the wake of the hurricane, should be concerned about the government's ability to respond to another disaster or a terrorist attack, Mr. Bush said: "I want to know how to better cooperate with state and local government, to be able to answer that very question that you asked: Are we capable of dealing with a severe attack or another severe storm? And that's a very important question."

Throughout his nearly five years in office, Mr. Bush has resisted publicly acknowledging mistakes or shortcomings, and his willingness in this case to edge up to a buck-stops-here statement, however conditional, was evidence of how shaken his presidency has been by the political fallout from the government's handling of the storm.

It also set the stage for a White House effort to pivot from dealing with urgent rescue and relief efforts to setting out a vision of how the federal government could help rebuild devastated communities and re-establish Mr. Bush's image as a leader.

The White House said Mr. Bush would address the nation from Louisiana on Thursday night, during the president's fourth trip to the region since the hurricane and his first major speech on the disaster. On Friday, which he has designated a national day of prayer and remembrance, he is planning to speak at the Washington National Cathedral in the morning, and T. D. Jakes, a conservative African-American television evangelist, is scheduled to deliver the sermon with some evacuees from New Orleans in attendance.

Even as Mr. Bush traveled to New York on Tuesday afternoon to begin a round of meetings with world leaders gathering at the United Nations, White House officials were weighing policy proposals and working on drafts of the speech that Mr. Bush will give Thursday. Administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss proposals that have yet to be decided on, said Mr. Bush was likely to set out a broad commitment to rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, with a particular focus on housing.

The storm has so commanded the attention of the White House and of Washington that Mr. Bush's remarks on the hurricane overshadowed his news conference with Mr. Talabani, which on a normal day would have been a major event about a conflict that has come to define his presidency. In the news conference, Mr. Bush warned Syria that it would become "more and more isolated" if it did not stop the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and reveal whether it has an intelligence presence or some other one in Lebanon.

As he prepares a blueprint to respond to the storm damage and to spend the billions of dollars that doing so will cost, Mr. Bush is confronting the likelihood that the rest of his agenda will have to be put on hold until next year.

A Republican ally of Mr. Bush who has been briefed on the administration's thinking said the White House's hope for the rest of this year was to deal with the hurricane and to win confirmation for Judge John G. Roberts Jr. as chief justice of the United States and for a second nominee, not yet selected, to the Supreme Court seat being vacated by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Next year, the ally said, Mr. Bush would return to issues like overhauling the tax code and the immigration laws that he had hoped to get a start on this year.

After the outcry over scenes of poor, black victims of the hurricane suffering and dying in New Orleans, White House officials continued on Tuesday to try to shore up support among the president's conservative African-American supporters, who have not all rallied to his side. Bishop Charles E. Blake of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles, a major African-American supporter of Mr. Bush, said this week that he had declined an invitation to meet on Sept. 6 at the White House with Mr. Bush, black leaders and charitable organizations because he was too busy.

"It's a four-hour flight, it's a $2,000 ticket, I do have heavy responsibilities here," Bishop Blake said in a telephone interview.

Asked if the government's response to the hurricane had changed the way he felt about Mr. Bush, Bishop Blake responded: "I cannot say at this time. I'm holding the issue open until I can understand the dynamics involved and the delays that have been experienced."

In saying he took responsibility for any failures of the federal response to the storm, Mr. Bush stopped short of acknowledging that he or anyone else had made mistakes. The president has in the past resisted efforts to draw him out about errors in judgment and regrets.

At a news conference in April 2004, he was asked what his biggest mistake had been, and he responded that he was sure he had made some but that he was unable, on the spot, to say what they were. Asked again about mistakes during one of his debates last year with Senator John Kerry, Mr. Bush admitted to having made some bad personnel choices.

In his remarks in the East Room on Tuesday, Mr. Bush distinguished between criticizing the way the government responded to the hurricane and the way individuals responded.

The president said that having been down to the Gulf Coast three times, "I'm not going to defend the process going in, but I am going to defend the people who are on the front line of saving lives."

"Those Coast Guard kids pulling people out of the floods did heroic work," he said. "The first responders on the ground, whether they be state folks or local folks, did everything they could."