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.”
But if Bush really wants to be taken seriously when he says that he is willing to accept responsibility for federal failures, he needs to do more than simply tour New Orleans in an open truck, preach to the television cameras from that city’s Jackson Square and promise to deliver the aid that any president — Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal — would offer in such a circumstance.
If the president is serious, he should:
1.) Make it clear that administration aides who engage in cynical and divisive efforts to discredit state and local officials will be removed immediately from their positions. In a time of national emergency, the White House should not be playing politics in order to shift the blame for the missteps and misdeeds of the president and his appointees.
2.) Support the immediate creation of an independent blue ribbon commission to investigate why the initial response to the crisis was so miserable. The president should recognize that if there are fundamental flaws in the nation’s emergency management systems, they must be corrected now — before the next disaster hits.
3.) Take steps to ensure that the federal response to the crisis and its aftermath will be fiscally responsible and ethical. At a time when massive new expenditures are being made, the administration should abandon its proposal to rob the treasury by cutting estate taxes for the wealthy. Additionally, while federal funding of relief and rebuilding initiatives should be generous, it should also be audited and appropriate.
Major contracts with private corporations should never be awarded without proper bidding, and strict limits should be set on the profits that firms are allowed to take away from those contracts.
One of Bush’s predecessors, Woodrow Wilson, put it well when he said, “Big business is not dangerous because it is big, but because its bigness is an unwholesome inflation created by privileges and exemptions which it ought not to enjoy.”
If George Bush is really going to take responsibility for the renewal of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, his most serious responsibility in the months and years to come will be to ensure that the hundreds of billions of federal tax dollars that are assigned to that endeavor do not merely enrich corporations that have contributed to his campaign and employed his vice president.
The president broke faith with the American people when, after Hurricane Katrina hit, he lost sight of his responsibility to provide immediate and sufficient aid to those most in need. If he now seeks to redeem himself, he must take personal responsibility for making sure that the promise of renewal is not squandered on profiteering.