The View From Air Force One

Vacation Ends, and Crisis Management Begins

President Bush glances back as Air Force One carrying the chief executive back to Washington flies over the Gulf Coast.
President Bush glances back as Air Force One carrying the chief executive back to Washington flies over the Gulf Coast. (By Susan Walsh -- Associated Press)
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 1, 2005

ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE, Aug. 31 -- As his blue-and-white jet swooped low over New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, President Bush pressed his face against the window and stared out at oblivion.

He saw an expansive lake where a storied city used to be. He saw mile after mile of flattened houses turned into so many matchsticks. He saw highways that disappeared into water, a train plucked off its track, a causeway collapsed into rubble. And he saw the next daunting challenge to confront his presidency.

After a month-long retreat at his Texas ranch, Bush returned to Washington on Wednesday in crisis-management mode, where his administration is likely to remain indefinitely. With his poll numbers at an all-time low, Bush faces one of the stiffest leadership tests since Sept. 11, 2001, with continued violence in Iraq, gasoline prices topping $3 a gallon in many places and now what he called "one of the worst natural disasters in our nation's history."

In response, Bush mobilized one of the biggest relief efforts in history as his administration tapped the nation's oil reserves and dispatched Navy ships, medical teams, search and rescue squads, electrical generators, a mobile hospital, and millions of gallons of water to the region. Bush warned that it would take years to repair the damage, and aides said he expects to seek a special appropriation from Congress.

While critics accused Bush of being slow to recognize the horrible scale of the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina on Monday, he moved Wednesday to reassert his public leadership role and reassure the American people that he is in charge. After his 35-minute flyover along the Gulf Coast, he raced back to Washington, met his disaster relief team in the White House and strode into the Rose Garden to address the nation.

"This is going to be a difficult road," Bush said, flanked by Cabinet secretaries, and he rattled off statistics to illustrate all the federal government is doing to help. "The challenges that we face on the ground are unprecedented. But there's no doubt in my mind we're going to succeed."

The words echoed the language Bush used through much of his August vacation whenever he emerged from the ranch to defend his handling of the Iraq war, and it reflected his leadership style. In times of calamity, he seeks to project an air of undiminished confidence regardless of the dark circumstances. He fashions himself a take-charge leader who thrives at making decisions that he never second-guesses even if they do not turn out the way he imagined them.

"The can-do stuff, relating to some physical or material problem, is something he can do -- he has strength there," said Fred I. Greenstein, a scholar at Princeton University who has long studied presidential leadership. "I think this a more natural thing for him than the other cerebral stuff."

But in a capital suffused with anger and partisan division, it did not take long for Bush's leadership on Katrina to come under question. Noting that it took Bush two days to cut short his vacation and return to Washington, Democrats painted the president as dithering while New Orleans drowned. "He has to get off his mountain bike and back to work," Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an interview.

Other Democrats began circulating accusations that the administration had neglected disaster preparedness to pay for the Iraq war and noting that National Guard units that usually respond to natural catastrophes have been fighting overseas.

"President Bush's wake-up call came awfully late," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). "We are watching this devastation unfold on our televisions for days, and you have to ask: Where is the federal government? The National Guard's first priority must always be to protect people at home."

In that way, the latest crisis facing Bush is already converging with the previous two. Democratic criticism will further inflame the debate on Iraq, just as U.S. forces there finish their third-deadliest month since the war began. And the disruption to the oil supply in the Gulf of Mexico could push gas prices so high it exacerbates public resentment or triggers economic turmoil.

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