Bush administration officials on Sunday blamed state and local officials for the delays in bringing relief to New Orleans, as US President George W. Bush struggled to fend off the most serious political crisis of his presidency.
His top officials continued to be pilloried on television talkshows by liberals and conservatives alike, but the White House began to show signs of an evolving strategy to prevent the relief fiasco from eclipsing the president's second term.
The outrage over the government's relief effort has hit Bush at a time when he is already weakened by the gruelling war in Iraq.
The threat is not only to his place in history; it could also cripple his second-term agenda, undermining his plans to privatize the social-security system and to end inheritance tax.
Bush also faces a much more difficult task in appointing an ideological conservative to take the supreme court seat of William Rehnquist, who died on Saturday.
The White House drew encouragement from an initial poll suggesting most Republican voters were sticking by him, and his supporters also pointed to Bush's track record of recovering from mistakes. His initial response to the Sept. 11 attacks was also sharply criticized. With that in mind, the first plank in the political recovery strategy has been to try to make up for lost time.
On Saturday, Bush ordered 7,000 more troops to the Gulf Coast. But as important as the content of the speech was its somber tone.
It was clear the White House realized that making a joke about Bush's young hell-raising days in New Orleans in the course of Friday's flying visit to the flooded city was a mistake that reinforced allegations he had failed to take the disaster seriously enough.
The second element of the White House plan is to insist, in an echo of the Sept. 11 attacks, that the scale of the disaster, the combination of a hurricane and the collapse of the levee system around New Orleans, could not have been foreseen.
Bush was castigated for saying on Wednesday: "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."
It was pointed out that there had been a string of investigations and reports in recent years which had predicted the disaster almost exactly.
Nevertheless, administration officials stuck to the line yesterday. In a string of television interviews, Department of Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff called the situation an "ultra-catastrophe," as if the hurricane and flood were unrelated events.
"That `perfect storm' of a combination of catastrophes exceeded the foresight of the planners, and maybe anybody's foresight," he said.
The third element in the administration's political response has been to counterattack against the blame directed at the federal authorities, particularly the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and its parent body, the homeland security department.
In his weekend radio address, Bush implied that many of the problems had been caused by lower levels of government. The scale of the crisis "has created tremendous problems that have strained state and local capabilities. The result is that many of our citizens simply are not getting the help they need, especially in New Orleans."
"And that is unacceptable," he said.
Unnamed White House officials, quoted in the Washington Post, directed blame at Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, for being slow to call for outside help and to declare a state of emergency. Blanco, meanwhile, resisted a federal attempt to take over control of local police and national guard units -- an attempt some Louisiana officials saw as a political maneuver that would help blame the weak response in the first week on the state.