Normally, disasters such as floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and such are chances for the president to gain popularity and for his administration to shine. It was the unique and inexplicable inability of the Bush people to understand the magnitude of what they confronted and to respond to it quickly that managed to transform this chance for a big political gain into a monstrous liability.
Americans will want to know why the trucks didn’t start rolling when the winds started blowing. And when they quieted, where were the airlifts and evacuations that could have fed and watered thousands and prevented many deaths and much psychic and physical harm?
But make no mistake about it: Every day for the next year, voters will see nonstop scenes of federal relief, rebuilding, renovation and reconstruction along with the empathy, sympathy and compassion these efforts imply in the heart of George W. Bush. He may have had a terrible first week, but he will rebound big time in the months to come.
The aid an administration gives in the aftermath of a momentous disaster will be covered continuously by the media. Every relief convoy will get a wide slice of publicity. As the pumps run and the city and the gulf region drain, the nation will feel a surge of heady optimism at our ability to bounce back from disaster. Happy visuals will replace tragic ones, and interviews with homeowners joyously moving back in will run instead of the tearful stories of refugees.
After Sept. 11, Bush was heavily criticized too. Remember the slowly ticking minutes in Michael Moore’s film “Fahrenheit 9/11” during which Bush continued to read to a class of children even after hearing about the Trade Center attack? (Bush was absolutely right not to bolt from the room and traumatize the kids and the nation even more.) It was not until his bullhorn speech several days later that the president got ahead of the story. Soon his response to Sept. 11 was the mainstay of his popularity and of his claim for a second term on the job.
The recovery from Katrina may well follow a similar trajectory. While the air in Washington will be filled with recriminations about why the levee wasn’t reinforced and why the aid was so slow in coming after the storm hit, the airwaves around the nation will be filled with evidence of the administration’s response, just as they were in the months after Sept. 11.
All this is not to take away from our justifiable anger at the human pain, loss of life and needless suffering that FEMA’s inability to get off the dime fast caused. To watch those pictures of Americans crowded into what was increasingly called the Sewerdome is to simmer in rage at the dunderheads in Washington who stood on ceremony, budgetary considerations, bureaucratic constraints and chain of command rather than rushing to help those in need before a weather disaster became a human one.
It is also not to take away from the need for a thorough examination, preferably through a Sept. 11-style commission, of why the levee was not strengthened after the warnings of Hurricane Ivan a year before and of why relief was so slow in coming.
But let the Democrats hold their rejoicing. In a year, Katrina and the relief and rebuilding efforts that are about to follow will be seen as having imparted a new and crucial momentum to an administration that was obviously increasingly running out of ideas, out of steam, and — like its nation — out of gas.
Katrina has the capacity to shape the second Bush term in the same way Sept. 11 shaped his first term — not only in rebuilding New Orleans but in taking preventative steps around the nation to bolster our defenses against natural and manmade disasters and terror strikes. Responding to disasters is a source of presidential strength and popularity, and Bush is about to show how it is done.
Morris is the author of Rewriting History, a rebuttal of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) memoir, Living History.