Katrina reveals limitations of a tough-guy president

September 26, 2005|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO -- When a mosquito-borne disease killed dozens of Americans in 2002, the satirical newspaper The Onion had a headline: "Bush sends troops to West Nile." President Bush has the right instincts to inspire trust in his wartime leadership. But complex domestic challenges don't play to his strengths.

Some people find it puzzling that a president whose words did so much to rally Americans after 9/11 has been unable to find his voice after Hurricane Katrina inflicted even greater destruction. Three days after the twin towers fell, Mr. Bush went to Ground Zero and issued a ringing vow that galvanized the nation: "The people who knocked these buildings down will hear from all of us soon."

Three days after Katrina hit, by contrast, Mr. Bush was making excuses: "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."

For a cowboy-boot-wearing Texan with a biblical sense of right and wrong, the Clint Eastwood persona came naturally, and it was just what Americans wanted in their president in fall 2001 - not a guy who would try to understand the terrorists or negotiate with them, but a guy who would make them wish they'd never been born. When asked about catching Osama bin Laden, Mr. Bush recalled the Old West posters that said, "Wanted: Dead or alive."

That same pugnacity served him well in the run-up to the Iraq war, when he amassed broad support for a final showdown with Saddam Hussein. The bravado carried Mr. Bush away after the invasion, such as when he issued a challenge to insurgents: "My answer is, bring 'em on." But his air of muscular resolve sustained support for the war even after Iraq collapsed into chaos.

Faced with an enemy, Americans prefer a president who looks tough, and Mr. Bush had no trouble doing that. His 2004 opponent, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, could never convince the electorate he had steel in his spine.

But Clint Eastwood is not the right leader for every situation. Sometimes you're better off with Tom Hanks, whose modest, unassuming decency can come in handy when you need a friend. A disaster caused by nature, rather than by terrorists, calls for empathy instead of righteous anger.

But Mr. Bush could no more emulate Tom Hanks than he could give the State of the Union address in Latin. So when he's faced with a crisis that can't be met with military force, he's at a loss how to lead the nation. After the 9/11 attacks, 91 percent of Americans approved of how he handled the crisis. After Katrina, only 46 percent do.

This is the sort of emergency that would show off the best qualities of the last president, who felt our pain. No one was better than Bill Clinton at comforting the afflicted in their hour of need.

If he were still in the White House, Mr. Clinton might or might not have done a better job of managing the federal response to Katrina, but he would have done a far better job of letting the victims know he was with them. He would have listened to them, consoled them, prayed with them and left them feeling more hopeful.

Mr. Clinton was a Tom Hanks president in a time when that was what the country wanted. In the quiet era between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the war on terror, Americans weren't looking for a tough guy, such as war hero Bob Dole. They wanted a smiling, sympathetic uncle who would give them a break from saving the world, and Mr. Clinton was happy to deliver peace and prosperity.

When the occasion called for martial themes, however, he was much less adept. Mr. Clinton insisted on going to war in Bosnia and Kosovo, but he always looked uncomfortable as commander in chief. And his successes in the Balkans were not enough to overcome the general public feeling that Republicans are more trustworthy than Democrats on national security.

But the image of toughness that helps Mr. Bush in that realm is not a great asset in helping hurricane victims. If his leadership has fallen short this time, it's not entirely his fault. Mr. Bush is the same president he's always been. It's our needs that have changed.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun.

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