A presidential test

September 02, 2005

PRESIDENT BUSH will journey to the devastated Gulf Coast today, taking an on-the-ground view in Alabama and Mississippi but only an aerial tour of New Orleans. Given the horrific conditions in the now underwater metropolis, that seems reasonable. But it also underscores the serious questions about the adequacy of official preparations for a catastrophe that was long predicted, and of the speed of the initial federal response.

The president went on national TV on Wednesday to assure America "there's a lot of help coming," and said yesterday, "The federal government's got an important role to play." Top federal officials followed with vows of relief and security forces that they said were already streaming toward New Orleans. But as they spoke, reports from the city displayed scenes of increasing danger and outright anarchy, forcing some terrorized rescuers to give up. The city's mayor issued "a desperate SOS." On the ground, four days after Hurricane Katrina blew through, control was thin at best. The vast dissonance between Washington and the TV images was surreal.

The nature and scale of this disaster is unprecedented, not just in New Orleans but across 90,000 square miles along the Gulf of Mexico. Americans might be accustomed to seeing such scenes in far-away, far-less-developed, far-less-secure places. But now it has hit home. Now, in one way or another, it is upon all of us. It is a test for the whole nation. And it is absolutely a test of Mr. Bush's mettle and of his presidency -- a test that Americans cannot afford for him to fail.

The hurricane is not the first disaster marking Mr. Bush's presidency, albeit the first that was not man-made. He will be forever remembered for his initially hesitant response to 9/11 as he lingered in a Florida elementary school. But perhaps his very finest hour came three days later when he stood amid the terrible destruction at Ground Zero, megaphone in hand, vowing rebuilding and revenge -- an image eagerly embraced by a stricken nation hungry for tough leadership.

This time, the material damage is not confined to just 16 acres. The direct human damage extends to millions of people. The process of restoration and rebuilding might ultimately be measured in decades. But there's a problem: President Bush's response to 9/11, the costly and troubled war in Iraq, has so stretched this nation and its willingness to follow his direction that it casts doubt on America's capacity to rise to this challenge under his leadership.

Americans' support for Mr. Bush's war in Iraq was initially broad. Yet he was unwilling or unable to present a clear and cogent case for the war -- to do, in other words, what a wartime leader should be expected to do. He flung American troops into the Middle East with little thought and no preparation for the very predictable aftermath. The deterioration of Iraq, in fact, could have been foreseen back in 2003 almost as clearly as the eventual but inevitable destruction that would be visited on the Gulf Coast by Katrina. The president, however, has subscribed, at every turn, to best-case scenarios, otherwise known as wishful thinking.

That will not work any better now along the Gulf Coast than it has in Iraq. A moment such as this begs for a great president, a leader of the magnitude of FDR -- one with true credibility and toughness. It is time for national sacrifice, something that Mr. Bush has never even asked of this country for his war in Iraq. It is time for a leader with empathy and vision for America at home that extends beyond tax cuts for the relatively well-off. It is time for Mr. Bush to rise to the level that this awful predicament demands.

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