George W. Bush does not do the Big Speech thing well. How many times has a fretting White House dispatched Bush to deliver a Big Speech to rally popular support for the Iraq war? Four, five, more? I’ve lost count. And I seem to recall a Big Speech meant to revive his Social Security plan. None of those other Big Speeches did much for Bush or the flagging policy he was trying to advance. In fact, he hasn’t succeeded with a Big Speech since the immediate post-9/11 period. Still, on Thursday night, it was time to try again–this time while standing in front of a podium in an empty Jackson Square in New Orleans. On this occasion, Bush’s aim was not to shore up an initiative upon which the public had soured but to change the Hurricane Katrina narrative from what-went-wrong (a tale in which Bush and his aides played prominent roles) to what-we’re-going-to-do (a brand new story in which Bush can recast himself as a hands-on leader, not a fly-over incompetent.)
Will this work? Can Bush pivot from being a president who presided over a post-disaster disaster and earned well-deserved criticism from across the ideological spectrum (neocon commentator Bill Kristol conceded Bush is not always “good on execution”) to being a chief executive able to oversee the most massive reconstruction in American history in an effective and visionary manner? One speech is not going to bring about such a transformation. His administration’s response to Katrina sparked outrage and disappointment that will not soon recede. My hunch is that many Americans are in a show-me mood. After Bush won the last election with less than 51 percent of the vote, this fellow claimed he had amassed political capital that he could spend as he saw fit. He was wrong. And his political capital–if recent polling is to be believed–seems to be, like his budgets, in deep deficit. That was before Hurricane Katrina, when the mess in Iraq and high gas prices were dominating the bad news. So Bush will not be getting off cheap with a moderately well-delivered speech in which he expressed noble sentiments and presented reasonably sounding–though generalized–proposals for assisting the victims of Hurricane Katrina and for rebuilding the Crescent City and other areas of the Gulf Coast.
There is, as he might say, much hard work to do. It remains to be seen if his administration–which, this tragedy has demonstrated, fancies cronyism over competence–can do a better job in NOLA than it has in Iraq. In Jackson Square, Bush declared, “We will do what it takes. We will stay as long as it takes.” Where have we heard that before? There will be tough decisions and policy and political battles ahead. Can Bush rise above himself? In this speech, he offered broad strokes and grand promises of assistance and reconstruction. But he mentioned only three specifics, calling for setting up $5000 employment training funds for displaced workers, selling off federal property in the area to homesteaders, and creating a Gulf Opportunity Zone. This last idea is based on a policy hobbyhorse long favored by conservatives: create tax-free-zones free of regulations in hard-hit areas to encourage companies to set up shop there. Can this be done in a manner so that corporations don’t end up dumping employees elsewhere and rushing to the GOZ to take advantage of depressed conditions there? With all money that will be heading toward New Orleans and the region–the estimated price tag for reconstruction appears to be several hundred billion dollars–won’t there be enough incentive for businesses to flock to the region?
Don’t forget about DAVID CORN’s BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on Hurricane Katrina, Cheney and a pipeline in Mississippi, Bush’s bathroom break at the UN and other matters.
Bush clearly has decided to throw money at what he called “one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever known.” But this enormous project will be managed by folks who don’t like government. The Bush White House and Republicans in Congress were poised to cut tens of billions of dollars from Medicaid, student loan programs and food stamps prior to Katrina. But now Bush has committed himself to spending far more than that on reviving the Gulf Coast and NOLA. Can the Bush gang manage this task better than they have managed contracting in Iraq? Bush, sensitive to this point, noted that he would dispatch inspectors general to guard against fraud. (Good idea. Why not do the same in Iraq?) But he and his gang have not been so fastidious about the use of taxpayer funds elsewhere. Can he devise a system in which Halliburton and other mega-firms are not the big winners? Does he care to?
Or course, there was no mention of how to pay for this. That was in keeping with standard accounting practices in Bushland. He said about suspending–or, dare one say it, pushing back–the tax cuts he has handed to the wealthiest of Americans. He has placed his war in Iraq on the national credit card, further weakening the financial standing of the country. Will he do the same with New Orleans?
Bush did acknowledge that Katrina has revealed the fault lines of race and poverty in American society. How could he not? He conceded the federal government had not responded appropriately. Again, how could he not? He said he would review the government’s performance, and he endorsed a congressional investigation (which, as of now, is to be controlled by Republicans). He offered no words of support for an independent and bipartisan investigation. Consequently, it seems that Republicans will be investigating Republicans. Perhaps Bush will put Dick Cheney in charge of his review.
Toward the end of the speech, Bush proclaimed, “I, as president, am responsible for the problem and the solution.” But prior to his photo-op speech from Jackson Square, he had already proven the first part of that statement. He has much distance to go–to wade, to slog–to prove the latter.