It orchestrated visits by Cabinet members to the region, leading up to an extraordinary return visit by Bush to New Orleans today, directed administration officials not to respond to attacks from Democrats on the relief efforts, and sought to move the blame for the slow response to Louisiana state officials, according to Republicans familiar with the White House plan.
The effort is being directed by Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, and his communications director, Dan Bartlett. It began late last week after congressional Republicans called White House officials to register alarm about what they saw as a feeble response by Bush to the hurricane, according to Republican congressional aides.
As a result, Americans watching the television coverage of the tragedy this weekend began to see, amid the images of destruction and suffering, some of the highest-profile members of the administration Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense; and Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state touring storm-damaged communities.
Bush himself is to return to Louisiana and Mississippi today; his first visit, on Friday, left some Republicans cringing, in part because the president
Republicans said the administration's effort to stanch the damage had been helped by the fact that convoys of troops and supplies had finally begun to arrive by the time the administration officials turned up. All of those developments were covered closely by television
In many ways, the unfolding public relations campaign reflects the style Rove has brought to the political campaigns he has run for Bush. For example, administration officials who went on television on Sunday were instructed to avoid getting drawn into exchanges about the problems of the past week and to turn the discussion to what the government is doing now.
"We will have time to go back and do an after-action report, but the time right now is to look at what the enormous tasks ahead are," Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security, said on "Meet the Press."
One Republican familiar with the effort said that Rove had told administration officials not to respond to Democratic attacks on Bush's handling of the hurricane, in the belief that the president was in a weak moment and the administration could not appear to be seen as blatantly political now.
In a reflection of what has long been a hallmark of Rove's tough political style, the administration is also working to shift the blame away from the White House to New Orleans and Louisiana officials who, as it happens, are Democrats.
"The way that emergency operations act under the law is the responsibility and the power, the authority, to order an evacuation rests with state and local officials," Chertoff said in his television interview. "The federal government comes in and supports those officials."
That line of argument was echoed throughout the day, in harsher language, by Republicans reflecting the White House line.
In interviews, these Republicans, who would discuss the deliberations only on condition of anonymity, said the normally nimble White House political operation had fallen short in part because aides and the president were scattered on vacations. Rove and Bush were in Texas, ande Vice President Dick Cheney was in Wyoming.
Bush's communications director, Nicolle Devenish, was married this weekend in Greece, and a number of Bush's political advisers including Ken Mehlman, the Republican National Committee chairman attended the wedding, which aides said contributed to the White House dysfunction.
Rice did not return until Thursday, after she was spotted at a Broadway show and shopping for shoes, an image that Republicans said fanned the notion of a White House unconcerned with tragedy.
These officials said Bush and his political aides rapidly changed course in what they acknowledged was a belated realization of the situation's political ramifications.
As is common whenever this White House confronts a serious problem, the management was quickly taken over by Rove and a small group of associates, including Bartlett. Neither man responded to requests for comment.
White House advisers said that Bush himself had expressed alarm after he returned to Washington. One senior White House official said Bush turned up at a senior staff meeting in the Situation Room on Friday and termed the results on the ground "unacceptable." He repeated the comment in his comments in the Rose Garden at the encouragement of Bartlett, officials said, in what marked the beginning of this campaign.