The main text of President Bush's nationally televised address last night was the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, but the clear subtext was the rebuilding of a presidency that is now at its lowest point ever, confronted by huge and simultaneous challenges at home and abroad -- and facing a country divided along partisan and racial lines.There has been much concern in the "blogosphere" that New Orleans will be rebuilt on "casinos and oil," that Bush and his crony capitalism will destroy the city we all loved, even as we loved to ignore its problems. I don't think that will happen, for two reasons: one, Louisiana has, frankly, forgotten more about crony capitalism than George W. Bush has ever learned about it, which means he is about to get schooled. Two: culture is much more resilient than we give it credit for. You can't kill it with a stick. New Orleans will be back, in spite of Bush's best efforts.
But as for the political analysis, I think Dan Balz is right: George is in over his head:
Hurricane Katrina struck at the core of Bush's presidency by undermining the central assertion of his reelection campaign, that he was a strong and decisive leader who could keep the country safe in a crisis. Never again will the White House be able to point to his often-praised performance after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, without skeptics recalling the fumbling and slow-off-the-mark response of his administration after the hurricane and the flooding in New Orleans.Balz gets close to the "nut," here, but Stephen Elliott is clearer and btter on this point. What Katrina has exposed is that "[Bush] sits on top of a giant, inefficient, and corrupt white house and he's responsible for all of it." This is something that, despite Karl Rove's dearest wishes, will not be quickly forgotten.
Katrina has added an enormous new burden to a presidency already bending under the stresses of public dissatisfaction with Bush's policies in Iraq and growing anger over rising gas prices. Bush's objective last night was to set out a strategy and commitment for recovery along the Gulf Coast. But the critical question is whether the damage will limit his ability to govern effectively in the remaining 40 months of his presidency and whether he will successfully rebuild the Gulf Coast and Iraq, let alone win approval for other major initiatives on taxes and Social Security.But the devil is still in the details.
In again taking responsibility for the federal government's failures, Bush signaled last night that the White House has decided not to contest the widespread perceptions that his administration failed in the early days of the crisis. By embracing those criticisms, they hope to make the issue a sideshow that will play out sometime in the future. Instead, after a halting start, the White House appears intently focused on demonstrating the president's capacity to manage the huge rebuilding effort ahead.Hard to contest reality when it is against you, and is living in your own backyard. Bush has not failed in Iraq with the American public because the failure is not easily seen and profoundly felt. This is not an opponent's strength, either; it is Bush's weakness, his Achilles heel. New Orleans is the arrow buried deep in that heel, now.
Bush's advisers believe that, despite the partisan finger-pointing over what happened, most Americans are not looking back and will judge the president on what happens going forward. But as Iraq has shown over the past two years, the facts on the ground shape public confidence in the president more than words or promises.Again: money will not make this go away. This is a bone deep lesson; this is now a cultural matter. Culture doesn't take such shocks easily; and it never forgets them.
There is nothing certain about the success he hopes to demonstrate. The rebuilding at Ground Zero in New York has taken four years, and although the work in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast will begin almost immediately, the scope of the reconstruction virtually guarantees debates and delays that could sap public patience. Already there are signs of a brewing battle between business and government elites and organizers working with those displaced over whose voices will be heard in shaping the reconstruction.Stop and think about that one. History is not on his side. And the effort will have to proceed in accordance with the laws of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, and the building codes and zoning ordinances of New Orleans and all the localities of the three states. Policies will have to be set and agreed upon in Congress. The Democrats can find countless ways to show leadership on this issue without resorting to "partisan bickering." Bush has not swept away his opposition once again in a bold stroke; he has entered the mine field.
The president also may face opposition to his proposal to give the federal government and the U.S. military greater authority in a time of such disaster. There will be no hesitancy on either side to spend what it takes to rebuild -- Bush last night envisioned one of the largest reconstruction efforts in history -- but already sharp differences are emerging over the policies that animate that rebuilding.In a state (Louisiana) which reportedly has a constitutional provision prohibiting the establishment of martial law, this is no small thing. And while people may welcome infringement of their civil liberties to restrain "terrorists," using it just for convenience, is another matter altogether.
Bush and his advisers have denied there was any racial motivation in the government's response, but they know there will be a continuing political cost if they do not turn those perceptions around. The racial gulf threatens not only the administration's hope of slowly attracting more black support at the polls, but also the fabric of an already divided society. "It is something that all leaders across the country need to engage in, and this president will," said a senior administration official.Yeah, we've heard that. He's "a uniter, not a divider."
I feel better already.