Democracy Corps did a couple focus groups in Philly and in Des Moines, asking about Katrina. The most interesting finding was:
In the past, criticisms of Bush’s failures on a wide range of homeland security measures – including port and border security, equipping first responders, and improving the flow of information within the law enforcement and intelligence communities – were completely ineffective because they simply would not believe that this president, who staked his entire presidency on his response to 9/11, would allow such wholesale security failures on his watch. Now, after Katrina, voters are asking serious questions about security here at home, and they increasingly see the massive deployment in Iraq, particularly of National Guard troops whose primary responsibility is homeland security and response to domestic disasters such as hurricanes, as a security risk here at home.
For over two years now, every focus group discussion of George W. Bush’s positive qualities has included the same basic ingredients. First and foremost, voters appreciate his leadership immediately after 9/11; they like his family (especially Laura Bush) and his strong commitment to his faith and traditional values; they like that he will state clearly what he believes and then stand up for those beliefs; and they believe he is deeply patriotic, cares about the country with a sincerity that most politicians can never know, and is “really trying hard” to do the right things, even if he seems to fail much more often than he succeeds. And for a lot of voters, those positives were enough to overlook his failings on so many issues, but not anymore.
These focus groups provide a rich understanding of a trend that is unmistakable in post-Katrina polling – an unprecedented pullback from Bush among all voters, most notably the Republican-leaning independents who provided his margin of victory and even many within his conservative and partisan base. This pullback is clearly based on his poor performance in office but is most notable because, while voters have long expressed disapproval of Bush’s performance on virtually all of the top issues facing the country, his personal charm and trustworthiness, combined with his appeals to faith and critical cultural issues, simply mattered more to a large percentage of voters. But that is no longer the case for most voters in the current environment.
There are a lot of important questions to be asked about whether the things that have happened in the last 4 years have actually made this country safer, and if the failures of the Katrina response make it easier to have a real conversation about the successes and failures of various plans, that’s for the best.