New Orleans: Their Problem

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, February 5, 2006

President Bush's 2006 State of the Union message has been widely dismissed as an inconsequential affair already headed for history's ash heap. But the speech leaves an astringent aftertaste that brings it to mind days after its delivery.

The bitter aftertaste comes primarily from Bush's perfunctory treatment of reconstruction efforts for New Orleans and other Gulf Coast areas hit by Hurricane Katrina. It was a curiously missed opportunity for a president usually eager to spotlight stories of human valor and to promise disadvantaged citizens better tomorrows. Speeding past New Orleans verbally is unlikely to have been an accident.

And that suggests that another bit of journalistic conventional wisdom -- that Bush is out of touch and lives in a bubble through which he sees the world darkly, if at all -- is also deficient. My fear is more ominous. After a great deal of study and some polling, Bush is reflecting national opinion fairly well on the challenges still faced by the people of New Orleans: We wish them well, but it is their problem, not ours anymore.

The annual exhortation to the nation is a political document rather than the outline of policy directives and priorities it pretends to be. But that does not mean it is worthless or short-lived. Topics are carefully scrutinized for their political appeal and effect, and the promises put forward are intended to quiet down or fire up specific audiences delineated by opinion polling. These speeches are barometers, not so much of what presidents are thinking but of what they think you are thinking.

Energy is another indication that Bush's reading of the public is probably keener than the "bubble" stereotype suggests. Karl Rove, if not the polls, would have told Bush that he had to say something about energy and, indirectly, about high gasoline prices.

But the polls also say that the public has no political tolerance for higher gasoline taxes -- however much I and other members of the commentariat believe and preach that such taxes are the best immediate way to curb U.S. consumption and imports and their noxious effects.

So Bush promised, in the manner of Saint Augustine praying for chastity, to become energy-independent, but not just yet, oh Lord. Technology is about to make it unnecessary to make the hard choices on energy. Cheer up and drive on.

But it was his words, or lack of them, on New Orleans that give lingering pause about the White House's reading of the political state of the nation and particularly of its race relations. The omission reinforced my concern that as time passes, more and more Americans will treat the tales of heartbreak and intractability that still emerge from New Orleans as we do dispatches out of Darfur or Pakistan.

The suffering is awful, really; somebody must do something, but it is hard to know what. Let's put a check in the mail and talk about something else. We will do anything for Louisiana, as James Reston once said of Latin America, except read more about it.

Bush's rhetorical reticence could be tactical -- a calculated unwillingness to revisit a personal political disaster. Why give anybody an opening to bring up Brownie again? By asking Rove, his political guru, to lead federal reconstruction efforts, Bush clearly signals that his top priorities and concerns are political in this crisis, as in so much else.

But New Orleans, past, present and future, carries a larger meaning than Brownie's missteps and the one-liners they sparked. The opportunity that Bush missed or, more likely, skipped was to provide national leadership on the deep problems exposed first by Katrina's floodwaters and now by racially charged arguments over reconstruction plans and priorities.

The initial scenes of suffering, despair and seeming anarchy that were beamed around the world triggered accusations that the city's African Americans were the victims of racially inspired neglect. More recently, Mayor Ray Nagin's remarks about maintaining a "chocolate city" and keeping it from being "overrun with Mexican workers" have revived racial sensitivities.

If you believe that Rove and Bush are too deep in a bubble of isolation or oblivion to see the shortcomings of their energy "plan" and the conflicts swirling around New Orleans, they have a midterm election they would like to sell you. It is far more damning -- for what it would say about them and about the public -- to suspect that they have carefully weighed the pluses and minuses of devoting more attention and resources to New Orleans and have pegged public sentiment just about right.

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