Well, the choreography was pretty impressive.
Bush, walking to the microphone, flanked by a floodlit cathedral and a statue of a Andrew Jackson on horseback. Wearing an open-collar blue shirt with rolled-up sleeves to symbolize his new role in the trenches. Giving out an 877 number. The night air seemed to loosen him up, making him less stiff than in his usual coat-and-tie Oval Office address.
The president was all about optimism for the future -- and he only glancingly alluded to why the federal cavalry arrived so pathetically late. This was a night to hand out federal goodies (no mention of the budgetary impact or whether his generic call for sacrifice might include sacrificing any other programs, such as abolition of the estate tax for the ultra-rich).
Bush did devote a couple of sentences to talk about the problems of poverty and racial discrimination, two subjects he rarely addresses. But he quickly let that drop. He proposed a low-tax Gulf Opportunity Zone -- but why has he never submitted such a plan for other blighted urban areas?
Still, last night's speech was not about programmatic details so much as projecting an image of compassionate leadership.
Four years after 9/11, Bush said, Americans have the right to expect a better disaster response. Ab-so-lutely! But what has the homeland security bureaucracy been doing since then? Bush named no one to head this biggest-reconstruction-in-history job. He said he'd cooperate with a congressional inquiry -- controlled by Republicans -- but made no mention of calls for an independent commission.
The pundits were restrained. Tim Russert said no one speech would solve Bush's political problems. Howard Fineman said the speech lacked urgency. Mort Kondracke said Bush was calling for a conservative War on Poverty, using tax credits and incentives like worker accounts and urban homesteading. Former GOP House member Joe Scarborough said FDR could have given the address -- it was "the WPA on steroids" -- and Tucker Carlson said the truth is that Bush is a big spender.
Something tells me that Bush's fortunes would have looked very different had he given such a speech on Day Five of the crisis, not three weeks later. Here's the morning analysis:
Michael Tackett in the Chicago Tribune | http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-050915analysis-story,1,1690545.story?coll=chi-news-hed: "President Bush, who often refers to "that crowd in Washington" with near derision, found himself performing an act of political contortion Thursday night.
"Government was no longer the problem. Government was now the solution. Federal spending was not to be curtailed. Record federal spending would have his full backing. Deferring to the judgment of governors and states simply would not do. The job of rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina was one that only the federal government could properly oversee.
"Throughout his nationally broadcast address from a shattered New Orleans, it was as though the disaster of Hurricane Katrina had transformed the president from the logical heir to Ronald Reagan to some curious amalgam of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson."
Joanna Weiss in the Boston Globe | http://www.boston.com/ae/tv/articles/2005/09/16/with_measured_tones_bush_scrambles_to_rebuild/: "Now, 'Brownie' is gone and the White House has realized, some two weeks into the crisis, that contrition is in order. So Bush read uncomfortably from his Teleprompter last night, without any sign of swagger. It wasn't a portrait of sympathy; Bush doesn't do pain-sharing, the way Bill Clinton did so glibly and so often. This was president as general contractor. It was president as telethon chairman, repeating a 1-800 number."
Richard Stevenson in the New York Times | http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/16/politics/16assess.html: George W. Bush, whose standing for the last four years has rested primarily on issues of war and peace, introduced himself to the nation on Thursday night in an unfamiliar and somewhat uncomfortable new role: domestic president . . .
"He is scrambling to assure a shaken, angry nation not only that is he up to the task but also that he understands how much it disturbed Americans to see their fellow citizens suffering and their government responding so ineffectually.
So for nearly 30 minutes, he stood in a largely lifeless New Orleans and, to recast his presidency in response to one of the nation's most devastating disasters, sought to show that he understands the suffering."
Dick Polman in the Philadelphia Inquirer | http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/news/front/12659495.htm: "President Bush launched two ambitious projects last night. One was to rebuild the devastated Gulf Coast. The other was to rebuild his devastated image.
"Both are daunting challenges, the latter perhaps more so. The sluggish federal response to Hurricane Katrina has -- at least for now -- blown away Bush's carefully crafted image as the leader who can best keep Americans safe. Now, for the sake of his political viability, he wants to reclaim it."
Doyle McManus in the Los Angeles Times | http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-assess16sep16,0,1051266.story?coll=la-home-headlines: "The speech, delivered before the improbably pristine and well-lighted facade of St. Louis Cathedral, included all the necessary elements of a post-disaster address: compassion for the victims, praise for their rescuers, a call on the nation to pull together, a promise that "we will do what it takes" to bounce back -- and a brief acknowledgment that federal preparations had fallen short."
John Dickerson in Slate | http://slate.msn.com/id/2126384/?nav=tap3: "Katrina allows the president to cut away from all the other miserable news and do one of the things he does best: spend money. Bush may talk like a fiscal conservative, but he spends like a liberal. He binges for his priorities."
Bush's biggest sales job may not be with the Dems, this Wall Street Journal piece makes clear:
"The open-ended commitment by President Bush and congressional leaders to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is stoking anger among conservatives over the Republican government's record of higher spending and debt.
"Following the nation's worst-ever natural disaster, no Republican in Congress is opposing federal aid that already totals $62 billion and is expected to exceed $200 billion. But the party's conservative wing, led yesterday by Oklahoma's Tom Coburn in the Senate and Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana in the House, is calling for offsetting 'sacrifices' in federal spending. And they're backed by a growing chorus of conservative activists, columnists and bloggers."
Oh, like they've sacrificed a lot in passing pork-laden measures like the highway bill?
Money quote from Coburn in this similar NYT | http://nytimes.com/2005/09/16/politics/16cong.html?hp&ex=1126843200&en=dc9a79668bffb41b&ei=5094&partner=homepage story:
"I don't believe that everything that should happen in Louisiana should be paid for by the rest of the country. I believe there are certain responsibilities that are due the people of Louisiana."
Will the Times-Picayune run a headline: "COBURN TO NEW ORLEANS: DROP DEAD"?
Josh Marshall | http://talkingpointsmemo.com/ is shocked at a report that Karl Rove has been put in charge of the reconstruction effort:
"Every Democrat should be hitting on this. Take the politics out of the reconstruction effort. He put his chief spin-doctor in charge of the biggest reconstruction and refugee crisis the country's probably ever faced. That tells you all you need to know about his values. Nothing that happened in the last couple weeks meant anything to him. And nothing has changed. Same as Iraq. Same stuff."
Andrew Sullivan | http://www.andrewsullivan.com sees Bush turning the Katrina corner:
"That seems to me to be the buried lede in the NYT poll. The public is now evenly split on that question -- which may reflect the success of the recovery effort since the initial debacle. The CBS poll showed that a week ago, 58 percent disapproved. Today that number is 50 percent. More whites approve than disapprove now (49 to 46 percent), although the damage that Katrina has done to Bush's attempt to win over blacks is probably permanent.
"Yes, Bush's general numbers are still the lowest of his presidency. But if you can have his record on the Iraq occupation and Katrina response and still get 40 percent approval, you have a pretty solid floor. My own view is that 35 percent of Americans would support him whatever he actually does. That's how polarized we are."
The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan | http://www.opinionjournal.com/columnists/pnoonan/?id=110007258, who took a leave last fall to work for Bush's reelection, doesn't sugarcoat Katrina's impact on the president, which she says "gave the administration its first indisputable domestic black eye. Roughly half the country has been attacking President Bush for an inadequate response and roughly half the country has been defending him by pointing the finger elsewhere or parsing the federal role in local emergency response. But no one is walking around saying, 'Was this his best moment or what? A triumph!' Because no one thinks it was.
"But a president can't control everything! True. Federal power is and must be limited. But the White House made two big mistakes. The first was not to see that New Orleans early on was becoming a locus of civil unrest. When an American city descends into lawlessness, and as in this case that lawlessness hampers or prevents the rescue of innocents, you send in the 82nd Airborne. You move your troops. You impose and sustain order. You protect life and property. Then you leave. That's what government is for. It's what Republicans are for. The White House didn't move quickly, and that was the failure from which all failure flowed. The administration was slow to see the size, scope, variations and implications of the disaster because it was not receiving and responding to reliable reports from military staff on the ground. Because they weren't there. When the administration moved, it moved, and well. But it took too long.
"Second, lame gazing out the window is mere spin, not action. Soulful looks from the plane are spin. The White House was spinning when it should have been acting. I do not agree with the critique that Mr. Bush should have done a speech with a lot of 'emoting.' This is the kind of thing said by clever people who think everyone else is dumb. Bill Clinton felt everyone's pain, and that is remembered as a joke. What was Mr. Bush supposed to do, criticize the hurricane and make it feel bad? Say that the existence of bad weather is at odds with the American dream? Hurricanes come, disasters occur; don't talk, move. In this area the administration has gotten way too clever while at the same time becoming stupider."
National Review's Jay Nordlinger | http://nationalreview.com/impromptus/impromptus200509150843.asp says the media are asking the wrong question:
"Major magazines and newspapers have been taking polls asking, 'Do you think we should cut back on Iraq spending to help rebuild the Gulf Coast?' and, 'Do you favor a partial withdrawal of troops to help with the storm damage?' Funny how the media immediately linked Hurricane Katrina to the Iraq war. There is no proper link.
"What excited people, initially, was the news that a third of the Louisiana National Guard were in Iraq. That lost its potency when it was understood that the two-thirds who were in Louisiana were not properly deployed at all. It was as though 100 percent were unavailable.
"But I have yet to see a poll that asked (for example), 'Would you favor a cutback on farm subsidies to provide federal aid to New Orleans?' You can almost see media folk sitting back and asking themselves, 'What do I hate? I know what I hate: the Iraq war. Therefore, I'll ask people whether they want to take from the Iraq war to give to New Orleans.'"
Huffington Post blogger Ari Emanuel | http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ari-emanuel/time-for-a-presidential-i_b_7296.html says Bush is no Truman, having "fallen back on his longstanding inability to own up to his many mistakes. Instead of coming clean, Bush's been repeating again and again that this isn't the time to play the 'blame game.' Actually, Mr. President this is precisely the time to assign blame and accept responsibility.
"And Tuesday's half-hearted 'To the extent the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility' doesn't count. It had all the sincerity of a little kid forced by his parents to apologize. Only in this case, it wasn't Bush's parents taking him by the ear (they were too busy worrying about all the underprivileged folks invading Texas), but his pollsters, who clearly let him know that the American people were not buying his blame it on the other guy, shrug and grin approach.
"Watching Bush choke on his carefully-parsed acceptance of responsibility, it hit me that what we need is a 12-step program for presidents addicted to shirking hard truths. Forget impeachment, we need an intervention!"
The Note | http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/TheNote/story?id=156238 enumerates how Bush is in a deep hole:
"He has never seen his poll numbers take this kind of hit among Republicans before.
"He has never seen his poll numbers on "strong leader" and "can handle a crisis" take such a hit before.
"He has never seen his efforts to build the Republican Party among African-Americans be so thoroughly undermined before.
"He has never been rolled by Nancy Pelosi before.
"He has never been without Dr. Rice or Ambassador Hughes down the hall during a crisis before.
"He has never had two open-ended spending commitments of tens of billions of dollars before.
"He has never had to take 'responsibility' for such death-infused tragedy before.
"He has never had to rethink whether he has put fully qualified people in critical jobs before.
"He has never had so many well-meaning Republican strategists and Administration aides whole-heartedly agreeing that the White House was too slow off the mark in dealing with a crisis before."
There's more, but you get the idea.
In the New Republic, T.A. Frank | http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=w050912&s=frank091405 says the Roberts hearings have been -- how shall I put it? -- a snooze:
"Perhaps we were spoiled by the Clarence Thomas hearings. There was rage, there was grandstanding, there were references to 'pornographic films,' 'perjury,' and 'pubic hair on my Coke.' . . .
"The Roberts hearings are numbing. They can perhaps be watched in a state of denial, in the hope that drama is just around the corner -- the stumble, the incautious phrase that might become an endless sound bite ('I support well-regulated cannibalism,' or something like that) -- but it takes faith and fortitude. When even the subsequent newspaper accounts -- which are free to pounce on just a few seconds of excitement out of many hours of material -- are bland, it's a sign that things are seriously dull.
"And it's for a simple reason: Roberts is a smart fellow, an expert at saying nothing, and no one on the Judiciary Committee is going to get him to say more than nothing."
Newsweek's Michael Hastings | http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/9355409/site/newsweek/ was given a tour of a school in Tikrit as the U.S. military tried to show "progress":
"But this is Iraq, and there's inevitably bad news as well. Wednesday, it was even worse than usual. Around the same time I chatted with the teacher, 100 miles to the south in Baghdad, about a dozen bombs went off throughout the city, killing more than 150 and injuring hundreds more . . .
"The jaunt was also intended to highlight Tikrit as town where security was under control. But to get our little group of about a dozen people to the school required 13 armored Humvees and two helicopters -- one of them an Apache attack craft -- flying close air support. With three soldiers in each Humvee, that makes for about 39 troops, or roughly four soldiers for each 'VIP.' Hundreds of Iraqi police lined the streets from the base to the school, both to show the visiting muckety-mucks their strength and to make sure we didn't get hit."
Finally, Atrios | http://atrios.blogspot.com/2005_09_11_atrios_archive.html#112673256265915885 has the photo of that note Bush wrote Condi at the U.N.: "I think I may need a bathroom break. Is this possible." Nothing in this presidency goes unscrutinized.