By Mark Silva Washington Bureau
As the anniversary of the worst enemy assault on American soil
approaches and with victims reeling from what may be the worst natural
disaster in U.S. history, President Bush's handling of the two could
mark the high and low points of a presidency he has staked squarely on
The indelible image of a president rallying a nation with a bullhorn
atop the rubble of the World Trade Center after Sept. 11, 2001,
provided Bush with lasting political power that carried him to
re-election despite a frustrating economy at home and an increasingly
unpopular war abroad.
But the images of despair flowing from the Gulf Coast in the aftermath
of Hurricane Katrina and the growing recriminations over the perceived
mishandling of the federal response could haunt the president for the
remainder of his term.
They could even alter Bush's legacy by denting one of the great
sources of his political success: his image as a man of strength who
leads in times of crisis, a decision-maker who gets things done and
takes care of the country in its darkest hour.
"When you define yourself as a protector-in-chief, your accountability
is higher," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg
Center for Public Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. "On
Sept. 11, you could reasonably say he hadn't had time to take charge,
whereas at the beginning of your second term you really can't say it's
someone else's responsibility."
Nearly a week after Bush declared that relief efforts on the Gulf
Coast were "not acceptable," the White House late this week said Bush
"continues to be not satisfied about where things are going."
Calls for speech
Adding to a sense of drift, critics are questioning why Bush has not
delivered a prime-time speech or addressed a joint session of
Congress. Instead, Bush will make his third visit to the
storm-stricken region on Sunday and Monday, a two-day tour of
Mississippi and Louisiana.
The president drew his own connection between the catastrophes of 2001
and 2005 when he assembled relatives of Sept. 11 victims Friday to
award "9/11 Heroes Medal of Valor" honors that Congress has ordered
for the relatives of 442 public safety workers killed in the terrorist
"We're still at the beginning of a huge effort," Bush said, comparing
the courage of police and rescue workers on Sept. 11 with those in the
aftermath of Katrina. "The tasks before us are enormous."
Yet four years after the Sept. 11 attacks, critics are saying the
initial response to Hurricane Katrina suggests the nation may be no
better prepared to cope with a disaster in a major urban center.
That preparedness is something Bush has spent the better part of his
presidency attempting to achieve, committing billions of dollars,
several government reorganizations and the creation of an entirely new
"What we have failed to realize is the terrorists showed us on 9/11
that we are vulnerable," said Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow at the
Council on Foreign Relations who worked for President Bill Clinton's
National Security Council. "And Katrina showed us here in late August
and September that we are still a very vulnerable society -- and the
most vulnerable part of the population ends up without the lifeboat."
The storm also may take its toll on Bush's agenda. The growing expense
of a storm whose costs are starting to rival those of the war in Iraq
could badly damage Bush's second-term plans.
Democrats say it will become impossible to justify further tax cuts in
the context of a deficit-busting hurricane and flood recovery. And if
the president's prospects for reform of Social Security and the
nation's tax code weren't already dashed before the storm, they
probably are now, say legislators and outside observers.
"Katrina pretty much stops his legislative agenda cold," said Stephen
Hess, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington
"If we ever needed more of a reason not to do Social Security reform,
this is it, because of the cost required," added Jim Manley, spokesman
for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). "It's going to be a
question of priorities, a question of whether Republicans are going to
want to stand on the Senate floor and support more tax cuts for the
Congressional Republicans say they still plan to push ahead with
important legislative agenda items. And less than two weeks after the
storm, it could be too early to measure the impact of the recovery
efforts on the president.
Two in three Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center said Bush
could have done more to speed relief efforts, while 28 percent said he
did all he could. Yet just a fraction of those surveyed in a Gallup
Poll -- 13 percent -- blamed Bush for mishandling the relief effort
and 18 percent blamed the federal government. Another 25 percent said
local and state governments are to blame.
"The initial impressions, obviously, of how the government handled
Katrina have not been positive, but I think the book is still out on
how this thing is going to be perceived," said Neil Newhouse, a
Republican pollster who has campaigned for the Bush family.
"I thought that everybody would be blaming FEMA, the federal
government." Newhouse added. "But there is a significant amount of
blame to place on state and local government. That is probably going
to increase as time goes on."
Some say the president has already begun to regain his footing, with
two personal visits to storm-stricken regions and a third starting
Sunday. He also has dispatched Vice President Dick Cheney to be his
eyes and ears on the ground.
The National Guard, for its part, has greatly expanded its presence in
New Orleans, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has plugged the levee
breaches that flooded the city, and embattled FEMA Director Michael
Brown is out as head of on-site relief efforts.
But some analysts say Bush should have found an opportunity by now to
address the nation with a widely watched evening speech explaining
what the government is doing, what Americans can do to help, and
perhaps even what went wrong at first.
"That's certainly something we expect from the president," said David
Lanoue, chairman of political science at the University of
Alabama. "We expect some kind of unifying statement that is both
reassuring and challenging to us, that assures us we are taking
control of the situation but also challenges us to do something to
help the people affected.
"George Bush has staked his reputation on the notion that his singular
goal is to protect the American people -- from terrorism, from crisis
or whatever -- that he has the strength and the vision and the
leadership skills to do that," Lanoue said. "But there is a
significant number of Americans right now who feel the crisis-manager
president didn't act quickly enough, didn't act decisively enough,
didn't put the right people in charge. If that view were to fester,
that would be devastating to the rest of the president's term and his
Copyright 2005 Chicago Tribune
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