The Photo Op Presidency

SAN ANTONIO, Sept. 23 - President Bush was supposed to land here on Friday afternoon on the first stop of a tour intended to make clear that he was personally overseeing the federal government’s preparations for Hurricane Rita’s landfall. But the weather did not cooperate.

It was too sunny.

Just minutes before Mr. Bush was scheduled to leave the White House, his aides in Washington scrubbed the stop in San Antonio. Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, explained that the search-and-rescue team that Mr. Bush had planned to meet and thank here in San Antonio was actually packing up to move closer to where the hurricane would strike.

So instead, Mr. Bush flew straight to Colorado Springs, where he plans to monitor the response to the hurricane from the headquarters of the Northern Command, responsible for the military defense of the United States.

In a White House that likes to choreograph the president’s appearances days or weeks ahead, it was a reminder that the newest strategy - to put Mr. Bush close to the center of the action - had its risks.

In the past, the White House has always said that the right time for the president to visit areas stricken by natural disasters is well after the worst is past, when the arrival of Air Force One, a motorcade and the huge entourage of aides and Secret Service agents will not interfere. That was how Mr. Bush handled the hurricanes in Florida last year.

That strategy cost Mr. Bush dearly when Hurricane Katrina struck, while he was making political stops in Arizona and California before returning to his Texas ranch. So earlier on Friday, when he was still planning to come to San Antonio - without stopping at his ranch - Mr. Bush found himself explaining why his new, proactive approach would not create exactly the kind of problem the White House used to warn against.

At the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s command center in Washington a reporter asked him: “Sir, what good can you do going down to the hurricane zone? Might you get in the way?”

Mr. Bush quickly shot back, “One thing I won’t do is get in the way.” After explaining the purpose of his trip was to make sure federal, state and local officials coordinate well, he added, “We will make sure that my entourage does not get in the way of people doing their job, which will be search and rescue immediately.”

But clearly someone at the White House reconsidered the President’s impact. When Mr. McClellan announced that the president had scrapped his trip, he said that with the search-and-rescue team preparing to move with the storm, “we didn’t want to slow that down.”

Another White House official involved in preparing Mr. Bush’s way noted that with the sun shining so brightly in San Antonio, the images of Mr. Bush from here might not have made it clear to viewers that he was dealing with an approaching storm.

Two major stories over the weekend suggest that a series of false steps, followed by accusations of incompetence and growing public disapproval, have left President Bush and his aides with their confidence badly shaken.

And in a big change as far as the press coverage of the president is concerned, aides and allies whose loyalty to Bush once precluded even the slightest public acknowledgement of any weakness anywhere in his White House appear to have lost some of their inhibitions – at least on background.

Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker write in Saturday’s Washington Post: "A president who roamed across the national and world stages with an unshakable self-assurance that comforted Republicans and confounded critics since 2001 suddenly finds himself struggling to reclaim his swagger. Bush’s standing with the public – and within the Republican Party – has been battered by a failed Social Security campaign, violence in Iraq, and most recently Hurricane Katrina. His approval ratings, 42 percent in the most recent Washington Post-ABC poll, have never been lower.

"A president who normally thrives on tough talk and self-assurance finds himself at what aides privately describe as a low point in office, one that is changing the psychic and political aura of the White House, as well as its distinctive political approach. . . .

"Aides who never betrayed self-doubt now talk in private of failures selling the American people on the Iraq war, the president’s Social Security plan and his response to Hurricane Katrina. . . .

"Most of all, White House aides want to reestablish Bush’s swagger – the projection of competence and confidence in the White House that has carried the administration through tough times since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. . . .

“In a series of private conversations over the past few months, aides began second-guessing how they handled the Social Security debate, managed the public perception of the Iraq war and, most recently, the response to Katrina.”

And it turns out that the Valerie Plame case is indeed hanging over the White House like a pall.

VandeHei and Baker write: “The federal CIA leak investigation, which has forced Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove and others to testify before a grand jury, seemed to distract officials and left a general feeling of unease, two aides said. Aides were calling reporters to find out what was happening with Rove and the investigation. ‘Nobody knows what’s going to happen with the probe,’ one senior aide said.”

Evan Thomas starts his piece in Newsweek with Bush sitting in the Colorado headquarters of Northern Command on Saturday.

“The president was hearing mostly good news. . . . The president didn’t look all that relieved or happy, however. His eyes were puffy from lack of sleep (he had been awakened all through the night with bulletins), and he seemed cranky and fidgety. A group of reporters and photographers had been summoned by White House handlers to capture a photo op of the commander in chief at his post. Bush stared at them balefully. He rocked back and forth in his chair, furiously at times, asked no questions and took no notes.”

(Here’s an AFP photo .)

Thomas writes: "And so what can Americans learn from this month of destruction and near destruction, of Category 3s and Category 4s, of slow presidential reflexes and presidential hyperactivity? . . . In an age in which terrorists have successfully struck the American homeland and hope to do so again, the 2005 hurricane season has made a seemingly boring quality of leadership sexy again: competence. . . .

"Bush’s presidency post 9/11 and his re-election were based on the hope and expectation of his ability to lead in crisis. There was nothing subtle or in any way ambivalent about the way Bush presented himself as the Man in Charge. Criticized (by pundits, by Europeans, even by his wife) for swaggering, Bush continued to play the cowboy and look as though he was enjoying it. . . .

“Especially during the run-up to the Iraq war and the 2004 campaign, Bush was not above stirring up a little fear. Now he is trying, a little too hard, perhaps, to reassure the public that his government really is able to cope with chaos.”

Here’s NBC’s David Gregory writing in an NBC blog Friday evening: "During his visit to FEMA emergency operations center here in Washington today, I asked the President what good he thinks he could do traveling to the hurricane zone later today in anticipation of Rita. He initially brushed off questions, but then spun around to say, ‘We will make sure that my entourage does not get in the way of people doing their job.’ . . .

“The same President who appeared just a tad aloof taking in Katrina’s wrath from Air Force One, or strumming a guitar after a speech as Katrina was striking, is now desperately seeking a new photo opportunity to symbolize his stewardship in response to Rita.”

Gregory concludes: “Bottom line is, these are photo ops. White House aides admit they want Mr. Bush to be seen in briefings and personally tending to the government’s response. Mr. Bush has no choice but to be in the middle of the action. Disaster relief and rebuilding are now the canvas of his second term. Between storms and war, the President’s vision may face less scrutiny than his administration’s basic competence.”

Oh, and…

On Friday, Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) published a letter asking Bush “why his White House point person for disaster coordination and recovery, Karl Rove, was heading for a political fundraiser in North Dakota on the same day Hurricane Rita is expected to slam into Texas and Louisiana.”



…for Jesus?

Yesterday I saw this AP photo with Bush sitting with gov Blanco and immediately thought it was a set shot. Either that or deliberately chosen to convey a certain image. What the hell is he pointing at, and why? Look at Bushie boy taking charge, pointing out what needs to be done to that clueless Democrat…

And… crazy

I think you might be a bit too cynical TrodKnee. ;-) Besides, if that’s the intention, it fails badly. Looks to me more like he’s a kid in class asking for help understanding something, “Excuse me Ms., what does that mean?”.

Actually, (and I’m NOT NOT NOT NOT saying it IS one) it looks like photoshop, shadows are funky, hes really crisp while she’s foozie looking etc…

Slightly OT

BAGnewsNotes - Excellent blog, does a great deal of image analysis.