He still doesn't get it

September 16, 2005

PRESIDENT BUSH is known as a closer, a guy typically slow out of the gate but who rouses to a strong finish.

His attempt last night to put behind him the worst of the Hurricane Katrina stumbles - including a failure for days to grasp the severity of damage - makes clear, though, that he's still got a long way to go to reclaim the confidence of the American people.

Promises of federal aid for health care, job training, education, housing, small businesses were welcome, and probably the least the hurricane's hundreds of thousands of victims have a right to expect.

His pledge to speedily undertake the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast - "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen" - was dictated simply by necessity.

He doesn't seem to grasp that what's needed now is a grander vision than the traditional tactic of throwing money around.

Along with redevelopment of the storm-damaged region should come a reordering of our national priorities. The Bush administration philosophy that the rich should get richer regardless of the cost to the environment and to the ever growing ranks of poor desperately needs to be upended.

Katrina offers the chance to rethink how cities are built, how energy is used, how access to health care and education is provided, and how race is often synonymous with economic class. Despite Mr. Bush's acknowledgement of "a long history of injustice that has led to poverty and inequality," he's still oblivous to the need for sweeping change.

Further, there were short term goals left unaddressed:

Keeping fraud out of the relief effort. Mr. Bush has dispatched a team of auditors, but already there are questions about federal employees issued credit cards with $250,000 limits; one central agency must have overall control of federal spending.

Making at least a down payment to cover the $200 billion or more federal cost by rescinding tax cuts for the wealthy and canceling pork barrel projects added to the recently enacted highway bill.

Respecting the environment by cleaning up the toxic spills caused by the storm, and installing new wetlands protections in the redevelopment projects. Astoundingly, a move is underway in Congress to waive environmental protections.

As important as it is now to look ahead, it's also vital that an independent panel be charged with looking back on how a nation so purportedly focused on homeland security could have been caught so unprepared by a predictable storm. Neither Mr. Bush nor Congress can do that job.

If President Bush hoped his appearance in Jackson Square would restore his esteem and erase continuing distress about both the war in Iraq and the government's pitiful response to the devastation of the Gulf Coast, he's likely to be woefully disappointed.

The formidable task ahead won't make it any easier to rebuild confidence, and Mr. Bush will have to display far greater leadership than Americans have seen from him so far.

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