In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a new political storm is brewing in Washington over the much-criticized government response to the disaster along the U.S. Gulf of Mexico coast.
Even before the hurricane hit, President Bush faced a decline in public support because of concern over Iraq and rising fuel prices at home.
The criticism over the hurricane response threatens to send his public approval ratings even lower. Despite that, the president says he is focused on providing help to the victims, not arguing politics. "I think one of the things that people want us to do here is to play a blame game. We have got to solve problems. We are problem solvers. There will be ample time for people to figure out what went right and what went wrong. What I am interested in is helping save lives," he said.
But even the president's Republican supporters acknowledge that the administration was damaged by the relentless television coverage of thousands of stranded people in New Orleans in the days following the storm.
Compounding the problem were complaints about the federal response by local officials like Aaron Broussard, the president of Jefferson Parish outside New Orleans. He broke down during an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" program. "Nobody is coming to get us. Nobody is coming to get us. The secretary (of Homeland Security) has promised. Everybody has promised. They have had press conferences," he said. "I am sick of the press conferences! For God's sakes, shut up and send us somebody!"
That in turn sparked opposition Democrats in Washington to voice their displeasure. "Where in God's name were the people who were supposed to give water, support? People were dying there," said Patrick Leahy, Democratic senator from Vermont. "What in Heaven's name was happening?"
To be sure, politicians from both parties are quick to point out that there is plenty of blame to be spread among federal, state and local agencies that could have done a better job of responding to the disaster.
Republican Senator Trent Lott lost his Mississippi home in the storm. But he praises President Bush for the leadership he demonstrated during his visits to the affected areas. "The president has been strong," he said. "The president has come to our area. And let me tell you, I saw his eyes. I saw compassion and hurt and tears."
Analysts predict that the president's political fortunes could take a dip because of the Katrina relief effort controversy, at least in the short term. "There was a laxness here that comes from the administration," said Norman Ornstein, who closely monitors U.S. politics at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "If the president did not do it directly, it is still the case that he is in charge, the buck stops in the Oval Office and when you get credit for all the good things, you are going to take a hit for some of the embarrassingly bad things."
But top Republicans are already warning Democrats not to focus on the Katrina response as a political issue. "If some people want to make this a political issue, if that is what is most important to them, then they have to have the ability and freedom to do that. In the meantime, we have a lot of people in this country that need help," said Illinois Congressman Dennis Hastert, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Many analysts also caution that opposition Democrats should be careful about trying to turn the Katrina response into a political issue. "I would counsel them not to turn this into a partisan food fight right now. There are going to be investigations, lots of investigations, and those investigations are going to produce results that will speak for themselves. To turn this into a partisan contest right now, I think, would be to devalue the findings of those commissions of inquiry," said William Galston, a political expert at the University of Maryland.
President Bush says he intends to find out what happened to the government's response on Katrina and several congressional committees are moving ahead with investigations of their own.
But there is also pressure to appoint an independent commission to the probe the government's response at the federal, state and local level.
Senator Hillary Clinton, a Democrat from New York, says government should not be in a position of investigating itself on the response to the Katrina disaster. "And every time anyone raises any kind of legitimate criticism and asks questions they are attacked," she said on NBC's "Today" program. "And so let us stop it. This is not a game. This is serious. The people that I met in Houston, you know, they want answers."
Analyst Ornstein expects support for an independent inquiry will build. "But I think the drumbeat for an outside commission like the 9-11 Commission is going to be strong and relentless. The administration will try to resist it. They may not be able to," he said.
One of the first targets of any probe is likely to be the Federal Emergency Management Agency, known as FEMA, and why it was apparently slow to respond to the crisis. Some lawmakers are now questioning whether FEMA should have been incorporated into the new Department of Homeland Security in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.