Horrified by the realization that a great many Americans see him as an uncaring Herbert Hoover, the president who forgot New Orleans attempted with his address to the nation on Thursday night to remake himself as a Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the 21st century.
The president’s speech from New Orleans was full of proposals, promises and pledges. But Americans will be excused if they wait for proof of this conservative’s newfound compassion.
After all, the president was not just talking about rebuilding the Gulf Coast. He was talking about rebuilding his own reputation.
Nothing gets the Bush White House’s damage control operation moving like declining poll numbers. And so it should come as no surprise that the president is suddenly “Georgie on the spot” in New Orleans.
After days of initially neglecting the humanitarian crisis that followed Hurricane Katrina, and then seeking to assign to others blame for the death and chaos caused by that neglect, the Bush team has suddenly noticed that the American people are upset. The president’s approval ratings have dipped below 40 percent — into what pollsters refer to as the “Nixon during Watergate” range.
So Bush is now positioning himself as the savior of the Gulf Coast. He has even taken what for him is the unprecedented step of accepting a small measure of accountability for his actions — or, in this case, inactions. “To the extent the federal government didn’t fully do its job right, I take responsibility,” the president grumbled earlier this week. In his speech on Thursday night, Bush admitted that, “Americans have every right to expect a more effective response in times of emergency.”
He’ll get no debate there. Nor will he hear many objections to his opening of the federal-aid spiggots to help rebuild New Orleans and other communities along the Gulf Coast.
But there will be some lingering skepticism about whether George W. Bush really understands what it means to take responsibility.
In fairness, while Bush does not have a track record that inspires confidence in his ability to hold himself or his aides to account, his Thursday night address from New Orleans represented progress for an administration that has had a problem with accountability. At least Karl Rove did not dress the boy president up in a search-and-rescue team uniform and pose him in front of a banner, declaring “Mission Accomplished.”