With a rare but simple declaration - "I take responsibility" - President George W. Bush said for the first time Tuesday that he would bear the blame for mistakes in the widely criticized federal response to Hurricane Katrina.
More than two weeks after Katrina hit, Bush also suggested that the response called into question the nation's readiness to react to a major terrorist attack, something that has been the central focus of his administration in the four years since the Sept. 11 attacks.
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," Bush said at the White House before traveling to New York City for a United Nations summit, Newsday reports.
Scrambling to contain the widening political damage to Bush, the White House announced Tuesday that Bush would travel to Louisiana tomorrow for the fourth time and would address the nation on recovery efforts.
Four days after Katrina hit, Bush called the federal response "not acceptable" in the face of widespread criticism but the furor continued, causing Bush's FEMA chief Michael Brown to resign Monday under fire and Democrats to press for an independent investigation.
Several outside analysts, including some Republicans who say they are worried about the potential for lasting damage to Bush, said they believed Bush's comments yesterday were designed to put the controversy over the government's initial response behind him and focus attention on the more recent recovery efforts that are getting higher marks from Americans.
Bush took pains yesterday to draw a sharp line between the government's initial bureaucratic response, and the recovery and lifesaving efforts. "I'm not going to defend the process going in," Bush said, "but I am going to defend the people who are on the front line of saving lives." Most worrisome for Bush, however, was that a new ABC News/Washington Post poll out this week showed a majority of Americans faulted Bush's handling of Katrina, but also gave him lower marks on being a strong and decisive leader - always one of Bush's strongest suits.
"The immediate reaction of the president and the administration is not what the public expected from him. ... and ultimately, in a major national crisis like this, the buck kind of stops at the White House," said GOP pollster Glen Bolger.
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