Storm tosses Bush into choppy waters

Challenges: The hurricane raises critical questions about not just Washington's response but also White House policies on Iraq, taxes and energy.

Katrina's Wake

September 04, 2005|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In the space of a few horrific days of storm-induced panic and suffering on the Gulf Coast, George W. Bush has seen his presidency transformed.

Instead of watching the confirmation hearings of his first Supreme Court nominee this week, Bush and his administration are focused on daunting new challenges posed by what some are calling the worst natural disaster ever to strike the United States.

Bush, who had hoped to make overhaul of Social Security the centerpiece of his second term, will instead be holding meetings on the breathtaking task of rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina, an unprecedented domestic relief effort that even the president has acknowledges has been inadequate.

Against the backdrop of almost unspeakable tragedy - a casualty count that has not been fully tallied and wrenching dislocation for tens of thousands of Americans, which could last months or even years - the nation suddenly faces what could be the worst fuel shortages since the 1970s and record-high energy prices, which could become a severe drag on the economy.

For Bush, all this comes at a difficult time. His summer has been marked by falling poll numbers - now the worst of his presidency and in danger of dropping even more - fed by deepening concerns over a war in Iraq that many Americans see as unwinnable and gasoline prices that seem to hit new highs every day.

The new tests facing Bush could provide a needed boost to the president's leadership, pushing aside those concerns as the nation focuses on a more immediate crisis. But they have also added a new dynamic that could do lasting damage to Bush: the raw outrage and anger of a nation shocked at his administration's slow response to Katrina, and accusations that his handling of the disaster has been shamefully ineffective.

Democratic Sens. Harry Reid of Nevada, the minority leader, and Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana called on Bush yesterday to exercise "strong personal leadership" to "get this effort on track" in a letter that called rescue and recovery efforts "chaotic."

After a slow start, Bush has seized the role of crisis manager with ardor. He toured the disaster area Friday and plans to return tomorrow, canceling a planned Labor Day speech in Maryland. He has chaired high-level meetings to plot government relief efforts and addressed the country in multiple TV appearances, pleading for patience from Katrina's victims and charity for their desperate plight. It is a posture that plays to Bush's strengths as a leader, first demonstrated in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"Now we're going to go try to comfort people," he said Friday in Mobile, Ala., before visiting hurricane-ravaged neighborhoods and embracing weeping victims.

There are risks for the president as well.

The sluggish pace at which the National Guard deployed to aid in recovery efforts called attention to how thinly those forces are stretched by long-term deployments in Iraq. The cost of rebuilding after Katrina - likely to be staggering - has highlighted an out-of-balance federal budget, prompting fresh criticism of Bush's tax cuts and his plan to make them permanent.

In contrast with the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, some Democrats are showing little reluctance to attack Bush in Katrina's wake.

"If we think that this was a good example of leadership, we have, indeed, lowered our standards as a nation," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader.

Bush demonstrated his flair for rallying the country in time of crisis with his defiant remarks atop a pile of rubble where the World Trade Center once stood. Picking his way through blasted Gulf Coast towns Friday, he aimed for a similarly rousing moment - a chance to transform the disaster into an opportunity to instill a sense of unity, and lift his flagging reputation.

"He understands his symbolic role very well - being seen at the scene," said Amos Kiewe, a Syracuse University professor of communications and editor of The Modern Presidency and Crisis Rhetoric. "For this president and others before him, presence conveys caring, emotional attachment to the people, an understanding of the suffering, and gives people the sense that `the government cares for me.'"

In Washington, though, Bush was getting a taste of what he will face in coming weeks, as lawmakers accused him of an insensitive and ineffective response. African-American lawmakers charged that his administration had short-changed recovery efforts because many of Katrina's victims were black.

"To the president of the United States, I simply say that God cannot be pleased with our response," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat and former head of the Congressional Black Caucus.

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