The Missing Link

The president’s errant attempt to mix his troubles.

How's that again? 
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How’s that again?

The president must actually believe he’s turned the page on Katrina. Why else would he be trying to leverage the national response to the hurricane to bolster confidence in his plan for Iraq? “Americans value human life, and value every person as important,” he said yesterday at a luncheon for the Republican Jewish Coalition. “And that stands in stark contrast, by the way, to the terrorists we have to deal with. You see, we look at the destruction caused by Katrina, and our hearts break. They’re the kind of people who look at Katrina and they wish they had caused it.” In other words, if you hate what the hurricane did to New Orleans, you must logically support taking the war against terrorism to Iraq.

The political problem Bush faces, of course, is that the majority of the country does not support his leadership on either event, or see what they have in common. If most people mention the two in the same breath, it is probably to link them as Bush administration screw-ups. Logic aside, it’s hard to see how Bush’s political standing will improve through his effort to connect one major policy failure to another.

Of the two disasters, Iraq remains the bigger political problem. According to the USA Toda/CNN/Gallup poll, 41 percent of the country trusts his leadership in handling the hurricane; only 32 percent approve of his leadership in Iraq. Bush’s standing on Katrina is likely to improve as he signs more bills and heralds signs of recovery. Iraq doesn’t provide such obvious opportunities. All that Bush can do there at the moment is continue to reframe his old arguments. This may explain the metaphoric association he is now trying to draw. Using Katrina as a rallying cry, Bush implies that the problems facing us in the war on terror are intractable (like poverty) and inevitable (like the weather).

In Bush’s own mind, the connection between the two events seems to be that they demand the kind of showy Churchillian determination that has become so familiar. In Jackson Square last week, the president struck the note of resolve we’ve heard so much in the last four years. “We will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes,” he said. “And 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.” We will fight them on the leveesBush hoped to remind people of his well-regarded response to 9/11. Subsequently, when talking about Iraq, Bush tried to draw on the bank of good will that the American people, if not the government, had discovered with Katrina.

This motivational check-kiting is wearying and at war with itself. As evidenced by poll numbers, both the emotional manipulation and the moral reductionism have grown tiresome to the public. The majority of Americans no longer believe that he is honest and trustworthy. By trying to graft the genuine outpouring of grief and fellow-feeling Americans felt in seeing the tragedy in our Gulf onto an unpopular war being fought in the other, Bush is trying to take crude advantage of public sentiment. But after appealing to our compassion, he puts on the brakes. Terrorists are trying to break our will by banking on our compassion. “They got the capacity to affect our conscience because we value every life,” he said yesterday.

The point is not that a president shouldn’t talk in a single speech about the biggest challenges he faces. He just shouldn’t link them when there’s no logical or substantive connection.

Bush doesn’t have to rely on Katrina to give his Iraq policies a boost; plenty of stories in Iraq might stir compassion. Nearly 1,000 Iraqis died on the Al-A’imma Bridge in Baghdad as Katrina hit, partially because of the constant state of panic engendered by living among car bombs and suicide missions. But the president can’t readily draw out Americans’ compassion with that tragedy—it highlights the failure to clamp down on the insurgency, which was supposed to be in its last throes. It also raises an uncomfortable truth: White House aides know that Americans care less about dying Iraqis than dead American soldiers. And they care a lot more about people dying in their backyard than they do about anywhere else.

The president may think his joint narrative of resolve will help him turn the page on Iraq as well as Katrina. But tying the two of them together Wednesday may instead mark the moment when he lost the ability to turn the page at all.