The first week of September 2005 likely will be remembered as one of the most troubled weeks of George W. Bush's presidency, a time in which natural disaster combined with bureaucratic bungling in ways that threatened to inundate an administration already on the defensive.
Even before Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast last Monday, Bush was buffeted by public dissatisfaction over the war in Iraq and consumer outrage over rising gasoline prices. But the federal government's widely criticized response to the hurricane's devastation in New Orleans and elsewhere turned a challenging environment into one that is potentially overwhelming.
His success in undoing the negative perceptions of the past few days could be critical to sustaining the political capital necessary to achieve other objectives of his second term -- from avoiding further erosion of support for his Iraq policies to domestic initiatives yet to come.
One goal is the reshaping of the federal judiciary, and the death of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist late Saturday presents Bush with the second opportunity in two months to put his stamp on the high court. It also adds to the burdens of an already besieged White House.
The confirmation of Judge John G. Roberts Jr. to the Supreme Court and selection of a successor to Rehnquist will be significant priorities for Bush, and in the long run, changing the courts may be seen as among his most significant domestic accomplishments. But Hurricane Katrina may prove to be the defining test of his second term, just as the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the Iraq war defined his first.
Working in Bush's favor as he deals with these multiple challenges is a record of success at moments of crisis, particularly in the days after the terrorist attacks, as well as a political resilience and resolve that have repeatedly helped him to rise above low expectations. He also oversees a White House staff praised for its efficiency even by political opponents. But the politics of the Supreme Court and, particularly, flood relief are highly charged politically, as the White House well knows.
"He understands that emotions are running high, that people are tired, people are angry and frustrated, particularly in the region," White House counselor Dan Bartlett said. "But at the end of the day, we've got to focus on improving the situation, saving lives and getting the recovery situation underway. The politics will be what they are. We will deal with it, but what the public wants more than anything else is to focus on the task at hand."
Veterans of other White Houses were also quick to note yesterday that the political standing of any president is defined and revised many times, with public impressions subject to ever-changing events and how well they are handled. In that sense, a president has numerous opportunities to rebuild public support and political strength.
The White House has redrawn the president's schedule to refocus on hurricane relief and, now, a second Supreme Court battle. His aides are building what one called "maximum flexibility" into what is normally a well-mapped schedule.
"My impression of what they're trying to do after the first few days is to recover exactly the kind of performance that they say they're good at, which is essentially an executive-style leadership," said Charles O. Jones, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin. "That is to say, 'We've got good people in all the top positions, we're hierarchical, we plan.' That's how they're trying to recover. You go with your strength to a point of weakness."
But that management style seemed to fail the president in the first days of the Katrina crisis. Bush's August was already planned to include events designed to rebuild support for his Iraq policies and to attempt to keep alive his hopes for restructuring Social Security. As New Orleans was filling up with water, the president headed to California for those events.
As a result, he was slow to get back to Washington. Administration allies, who normally applaud the planning of the White House, said that in this case, the system proved to be a problem. "It's difficult to move on a dime," a former administration official said. "Now, you would hope they're going to be nimbler."
Bush has enjoyed none of the rally-round sentiment that followed the Sept. 11 attacks, as Americans confronted not only tragedy and devastation but also a common purpose in retaliating against those who had attacked the country. Public anger after those attacks focused on Osama bin Laden and the terrorists. Even in Iraq, there is an obvious enemy. Along the Gulf Coast, there is no common enemy for Bush to fight -- only a hurricane that has come and gone.
In this case, anger has been focused on Bush and his administration to a degree unprecedented in his presidency. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said in an ABC News interview that aired Sunday that she would consider punching the president and others for their response to what happened there. Local officials, some in tears, have angrily accused the administration of callousness and negligence.
The crisis in Louisiana also has rubbed raw relations between the administration and the African American community, with charges of racism leveled at the White House over the response to those stranded in New Orleans. Those charges threaten to trample the efforts Bush and the Republican National Committee have made recently to reach out to blacks. One sign of the problem was the appearance of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the administration's highest-ranking African American and an official whose portfolio does not normally include domestic problems, in her native Alabama yesterday, where she sought to rebut those charges as vigorously as she could.
One Democrat whose boss was in contact with the administration as problems mounted in Louisiana said it seemed clear that the White House had no on-the-ground network within the African American community that could have alerted the president to the deepening crisis in a more timely way.
Public opinion appears to have been shaped considerably by the partisan polarization that long has defined attitudes toward Bush. In part, Bush may be reaping some of the consequences of a governing style that has favored confrontation over conciliation, of appealing first and foremost to his conservative base rather than the country as a whole.
That could come into play again as Bush selects another nominee to the high court. Outside the White House, there was considerable discussion about whether Bush will seek a conservative to satisfy his base or a consensus candidate who would find widespread support across the political spectrum. "If his choice is seen as contentious, I think that can only further complicate his situation with the public," said Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center for the Press & the Public.
White House officials say that they are well prepared to select a successor to Rehnquist and that the president will not be influenced by political commentary. "He's going to make the decision on who he thinks is right for the court," Bartlett said, "not public opinion polls or what public sees as a strong or weak hand politically."
Bartlett said Bush has been dealt an unprecedented hand during his presidency, and that there will be plenty of time to debate what happened in the past week. But with an ongoing emergency along the Gulf Coast, he said, the administration will be focusing on relief and recovery. "The public expects us to deal with these," he said. "We're expected to deal with it, whatever comes our way."