We've become accustomed to these fraught addresses from President Bush: the cadences of loss and resolve, the biblical echoes, and the strain of a voice trying to whip up hope. We heard them over and over after 9/11 and before the Iraq war. But tonight was different. President Bush has never spoken from a position of such weakness. The country is as uncertain about his leadership as it has ever been. He created the very Department of Homeland Security that failed to prepare itself or citizens for Hurricane Katrina or manage its aftermath. Bush has spoken at length about compassion for the least among us, and yet their condition has not improved.
Second terms usually start on the steps of the Capitol. George Bush hopes that his starts in Jackson Square. Before the storm, his second four years had been defined by impotency. The war he started in Iraq became even bloodier and looked more hopeless. Cindy Sheehan appeared to be working harder than he was. Gas prices jumped, and he admitted there was little he could do to help. He had to install John Bolton in the United Nations after the senators who wouldn't confirm him had gone home for the summer. His plan for revamping Social Security fell flat in the turf almost right out of the gate.
Katrina is his disaster, but also his chance. The president announced his plan for "Gulf Opportunity Zones" tonight. No one has a better Gulf Opportunity Zone than he does. Thanks to Katrina, at least now he can act. Bush can shuttle to the newly uplifted: visiting homeowners in their gleaming kitchens, or small-business owners turning profits in the reviving Gulf. Iraq will never offer up such made-for-television opportunities.
Katrina allows the president to cut away from all the other miserable news and do one of the things he does best: spend money. Bush may talk like a fiscal conservative, but he spends like a liberal. He binges for his priorities. Tonight he made a lot of promises. The federal government will pay to rebuild infrastructure, pay rent for the displaced, pick up state expenses, and deliver mobile homes. If you have any favorite federal programs you'd like enacted, please bring them to the front of the room. The costs to rebuild the Gulf will skyrocket, but Republican leaders are also going to have to pay hush money outside the region: funding projects from politically key areas. Lawmakers will find ways to tie their requests to Katrina.
As a political matter, tonight's immediate goals were limited. By standing alone and detailing his plan, Bush hoped to court disaffected Republicans with an image of leadership that will conjure memories of his post-9/11 performance.
The larger goal is harder: to restore the image of Republican competency with the broader voting public. That's important for Bush's legacy and Republicans up for election in 2006 campaigning on safety and leadership. Polls show Americans now view Bush's leadership abilities at their modest pre-9/11 levels, and only half the country trusts his ability to handle terrorism, his former strong suit. On the question of homeland security he seemed to invite more doubt. "I consider detailed emergency planning to be a national security priority," he said tonight. Yikes. It wasn't before?
The president has hitched his second term to the Gulf reconstruction, and that may require a surprising amount of political courage. Congress has been willing to spend like crazy in the past few weeks, but that profligacy will end. Fiscal conservatives in his party are furious at the new government spending. Conservative Democrats and independents in key districts outside of the affected area are also already balking: Why is the president pandering to the Gulf? Why doesn't he show as much effort helping me get a job or lowering my gas prices?
Bush will be rebuilding his presidency along with New Orleans. He has the money to spend—as he did after 9/11, as he did in Iraq. The question is what it always is with the president. His resolve and certainty are not in doubt; his competence is. Is his administration capable enough not to waste those billions but to turn them into a genuine Gulf recovery?