PRESIDENT BUSH'S response to Hurricane Katrina has been, to put it kindly, faltering. He has fallen short both rhetorically and substantively. The rhetorical failure is less important but perhaps more surprising for a politician with his strong communications skills. One of the highlights of Mr. Bush's presidency, and one of the keys to his reelection, was his ability to rally a country stunned by the Sept. 11 attacks -- perhaps most vividly in his visit to the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center. President Bill Clinton rose to an earlier challenge after the Oklahoma City bombing, using the bully pulpit of the presidency to reassure and console the nation.
A natural disaster may pose a tougher test for a president; there is, after all, no enemy or evildoer to rail against. Even so, Mr. Bush's tone and demeanor have been off, sometimes jarringly, since Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast 10 days ago. He chose to remain at his Texas ranch -- and head to California to promote his Medicare prescription drug plan -- even after the storm hit. His assertions of progress have been disconcertingly at odds with the chaotic scenes being watched by millions of Americans.
Among the sound bites of his presidency that Mr. Bush will most regret, one will surely be "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." That was Mr. Bush's valentine last week to his hapless FEMA director, Michael D. Brown. Many Americans are already frustrated -- justifiably so -- by the administration's unwillingness to candidly acknowledge the difficulties it is facing in Iraq, and the degree to which its own misjudgments contributed to them. They aren't likely to have much tolerance for a similarly inadequate response to a domestic disaster -- nor should they.
All of which brings us to the bigger problem confronting Mr. Bush: his administration's shortcomings in preparing for and responding to Katrina. City and state officials have their own sins to answer for, but that doesn't let the feds off the hook. Some key disaster response personnel, most notably Mr. Brown, were evidently unqualified; the president deserves blame for entrusting them with such key positions. He sought to cut funds for the protection of New Orleans's levees. The administration's early response to the disaster was, as Mr. Bush himself said, "unacceptable."
Mr. Bush still has a chance to improve the now-fading prospects for his second term. The first goal remains helping Katrina's victims; it's important that congressional inquiries not distract from recovery efforts. But soon enough the president will face another test: whether to demand the kind of accountability that has so far been lacking in his administration, including acknowledging his own miscalculations. Another challenge will be to accurately access the cost of federal disaster relief -- Mr. Bush asked for an additional $52 billion yesterday, and the total could rise above $100 billion -- and to make the necessary adjustments to avoid blowing an even bigger hole in the federal budget. This, too, would require a change in the administration's standard operating procedure, which has been to minimize costs (see, for example, military operations in Iraq) and refuse to acknowledge their consequences (see the continuing push to make Mr. Bush's tax cuts permanent).
Yesterday's sobering assessment by the Congressional Budget Office -- that Katrina could cut employment by an expected 400,000 jobs this year and reduce economic growth by as much as one percentage point -- underscores the urgency of getting the recovery from Katrina right.
Some of the administration's political opponents are reacting to the administration's fumbling with barely disguised glee, hoping it will hobble the administration's policy plans and hurt the GOP in the 2006 elections and beyond. But all Americans, Democrats and Republicans, ought to hope that the administration will right itself sufficiently to oversee an effective recovery. And that's not just for the sake of Katrina's survivors. For the president to be rendered a lame duck more than three years before he leaves office would not serve the country well, at home or abroad.