George Bush is finally on the case. Criticized for his administration’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina, he and his aides are anxious to show that they’ve taken the wheel and that their knuckles are white from steering. The president has now visited the soggy Delta landscape twice. The vice president is headed there Thursday. The first lady will visit schoolchildren again. Bush’s schedule today was clotted with Katrinalia—he met with his Cabinet, volunteer organizations, displaced students, and congressional leaders. Tonight, Cabinet officials will brief Hill leaders. More quietly, White House surrogates are talking about failures at the state and local levels. Several Bush allies have e-mailed me pictures of the unused buses soaking in New Orleans.
Bush has even pledged to lead an investigation into what went wrong. This is no small matter. Such backward-looking is out of character for a president who believes that leadership means moving forward. Under less fraught circumstances, he’s known to mock Monday morning quarterbacks: the media, the professors, the French who moan opinions about what he or his administration should do. “Oh no, here come the hand-wringers,” he sometimes jokes to aides he thinks listen too much to the “echo chamber.”
Bush allies and administration aides still dispute the notion that they are at fault. They claim that state officials had told the federal authorities that they were on the case after the storm hit. Any sluggishness was the result of unfortunate events, not bad management. “I don’t care what anyone says,” insists a White House ally. “People thought those levees were going to hold.” Much of the criticism they write off to the usual suspects: biased media, political opponents, and turf-conscious politicians who didn’t do their jobs. An investigation may bolster the Bush team’s case that Homeland Security can only act if the local response is minimally competent and take away some of the appearance that it took CNN to get FEMA to do its job.
But the investigation won’t happen quickly. The president and his head of the Department of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, are right to argue that quick reprisals won’t help with the business of digging out and rebuilding. For the moment, people need food and a future more than finger-pointing. But images of rescuers piloting bloated bodies out of soaked houses will fill the news in the coming weeks. Draining the city will take months. The roar of the displaced demanding answers will not die down.
So, what can Bush do to reverse the focus on his own failure? His own sunny optimism, which even he seemed to find unsatisfying, is unlikely to help at this point. “Out of this despair is going to come a vibrant coast,” he told residents of Poplarville, Miss., Monday. “I understand if you’re saying to yourself, well, it’s hard for me to realize what George W. is saying because I’ve seen the rubble and I know what has happened to my neighbors. But I’d like to come back down here in about two years and walk your streets and see how vital this part of the world is going to be. I can’t wait to join you in the joy of welcoming neighbors back into neighborhoods, and small businesses up and running, and cutting those ribbons that somebody is creating new jobs. That’s what I think is going to happen.”
Bush’s ability to empathize, so effective with military families, has seemed off tone on the Gulf Coast. His fantasies about sitting on the fresh timber of Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott’s rebuilt porch were no match for footage of stunned faces poking through escape holes torn in rooftops.
But if the president really wants to turn around the perception that he’s failed, he has a better option than belated hyperactivity and spin: Bush should put his own prestige on the line by appearing in an unscripted public forum to answer questions about the government’s response to the disaster. He should schedule a press conference, or, better yet, a town hall meeting with residents. The directors of FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security can join him onstage, if they’d like, but this president who likes bold action should promise that he will be the one doing the talking. George Bush knows that political capital is built by risk. His approval ratings are at their lowest mark. A majority of Americans have doubts about his stewardship of the Iraq war. Standing alone on a stage would be a gamble that could quiet those pesky hand-wringers—”I’ll answer your questions soon enough, now grab a shovel”—and provide some kind of psychic relief for the frustrated and helpless stranded miles away from the marinating streets on which they once lived.
Connecting with the people who are suffering will also require that Bush join in the outraged demand for answers. People in New Orleans didn’t die fighting for a noble cause—they died because someone screwed up. Public anger has never been a big part of Bush’s PR repertoire, but he has been known to use it. In March 2002, on the belated notice that the Immigration and Naturalization Service had approved student visas for two of the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center, the president said he could “barely get my coffee down” when he read about it. “I was stunned and not happy,” he told reporters. “I was plenty hot.” That kind of response could help here. If the president demands answers because he is the one delivering them to those who suffered, he will get results far more quickly than a commission of the kind being proposed by Hillary Clinton and others on the Hill. Time matters: Hurricane season has not reached its peak, and no one knows when a major terrorist attack will require the kind of response that failed here.
Bush finds it hard to pin the blame on someone who has stood next to him for any length of time. “He has a very strong feeling for anyone who has been in the foxhole with him,” says a former aide. “Especially when they’re under fire.” He refused Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s two offers of resignation after abuses were discovered at Abu Ghraib. He bestowed the nation’s highest civilian honor on the CIA director who told him that the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a “slam dunk.” He continues to stand by Karl Rove though his top aide helped steer reporters to the identity of an undercover CIA agent.
Characteristically, he says he doesn’t want to play the “blame game.” Here, he should. His own executive style demands it. The president is almost evangelical about his theory of management: Pick good people, give them power, and then hold them accountable. He never designed an administration around mistake-admitting; he did build it on accountability. Delegation without accountability leads to rot.
Will Michael Brown be held accountable? Administration officials defend him. The president offered a typically folksy pat on the back after his first visit to Biloxi. “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” he said.
Not all the president’s allies think so. “Someone has to get fired,” says a top aide to a Republican senator, describing the work ahead for GOP leaders in Congress. Right now, he continued, “There are two jobs: writing checks and figuring out who gets fired.”