WASHINGTON – President Bush, who often refers to “that crowd in Washington” with near derision, found himself performing an act of political contortion Thursday night.
Government was no longer the problem. Government was now the solution. Federal spending was not to be curtailed. Record federal spending would have his full backing. Deferring to the judgment of governors and states simply would not do. The job of rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina was one that only the federal government could properly oversee.
Throughout his nationally broadcast address from a shattered New Orleans, it was as though the disaster of Hurricane Katrina had transformed the president from the logical heir to Ronald Reagan to some curious amalgam of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.
He offered up a relief program that seemed to draw reconstruction inspiration from the Marshall Plan, the Works Progress Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority and social policy animated by the Great Society.
It was in many ways a masterly speech, filled with empathy, poetry and a clearly articulated plan to address the costliest natural disaster in the nation’s history. But the words were late in coming and delivered by a president who delivers calls for cuts in government as applause lines.
“History is sometimes the moment a bell rings,” said Douglas Brinkley, a historian and professor at the University of New Orleans. “He had a historic opportunity to seize this and become a great leader and he bobbled it not just once but four or five times. This is a speech that needed to have been delivered within days of the hurricane.”
Tardy perhaps, and freighted with potential problems even within his own Republican Party, the president’s recovery plan called for a new alphabet soup of government initiatives (Gulf Opportunity Zones, Worker Recovery Accounts, an Urban Homesteading Act) that sounded like pages taken from the New Deal. Stung by charges that the government might have been slow to respond because of racism, he even emphasized the need for, in effect, minority set-aside programs to be a major part of the rebuilding.
His tone was atonement.
Now, he said, government largesse is needed far more than government restraint.
He may have had no choice. “This is an extraordinary catastrophe,” said Merle Black, a professor of political science at Emory University. “This is not business as usual. He is responding to a crisis that he didn’t make. The importance of New Orleans, and the ports and the infrastructure to the nation is so crucial, there is a national interest here.”
The crisis also forces the president to manage two extraordinary events – the reconstruction and the war in Iraq – at the same time. And, ironically, the price tag on the president’s proposal for the former may cost him even more support among Americans for the latter.
An additional challenge will be to hold on to his core supporters, many of whom are strong fiscal conservatives who chafe at the notion of record deficits. Those same supporters are not likely to want to give up hard-won tax cuts or sweeping changes in Social Security, both linchpins of the president’s pre-Katrina domestic agenda.
Indeed, Bush may be about to find out if those supporters are loyal to him personally or to him merely so long as he is the vessel for their agenda.
The fallout from the halting response to the hurricane has also eroded one of the president’s fundamental strengths, that he is seen as a “strong leader.”
So the president needed to try to recapture a national moment. The networks obliged. And the White House tried to ensure good stagecraft by importing its own lights and generators to the French Quarter. The president, wearing a blue dress shirt open at the neck, walked along the green grass in Jackson Square to a lectern in a setting that was meant to signal hope and rebirth.
(He struck the chords of the optimist and tried to reprise the best of the language from his first campaign, lauding the “armies of compassion” who were reaching out to hurricane victims.
And the president made grand vows. “All who question the future of the Crescent City need to know: There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again.”
His promise was unqualified, and he also extended a personal guarantee, taking responsibility not just for the government’s problems in addressing the disaster but also the solution in restoring the Gulf Coast region, even if that process outlasts his presidency.
“How do you rebuild this place?” Brinkley said. “You can’t just dump money. It’s going to be a massive, national initiative. You won’t see the results of a new New Orleans for five or six years.”
This has been a president and a presidency defined by crisis and in many respects the American people have stood by him. This crisis, however, is likely to hit Americans more directly in their wallets, and the president might even need the support of Democrats to get the kind of spending that he seemed to be proposing.
Throughout his time in office, Bush had adopted a governing style that seemed to define compromise as that moment when the other side came to adopt his position. The price for that style might be coming due.
This was a speech about the ability of government to deliver. The president laid down costly markers. His presidency will be measured by how well he meets them.
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