The main text of President Bush's nationally televised address last night was the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, but the clear subtext was the rebuilding of a presidency that is now at its lowest point ever, confronted by huge and simultaneous challenges at home and abroad -- and facing a country divided along partisan and racial lines.
Hurricane Katrina struck at the core of Bush's presidency by undermining the central assertion of his reelection campaign, that he was a strong and decisive leader who could keep the country safe in a crisis. Never again will the White House be able to point to his often-praised performance after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, without skeptics recalling the fumbling and slow-off-the-mark response of his administration after the hurricane and the flooding in New Orleans.
His response to these criticisms last night was a speech largely shorn of soaring rhetoric and stirring turns of phrase of the kind that marked his efforts to rally the country after the terrorist attacks. Instead, as if recognizing that his own road back will be one marked by steady but small steps, he spoke with workmanlike focus, spelling out the details of what has been done and will be done to help those displaced by the storm.
Katrina has added an enormous new burden to a presidency already bending under the stresses of public dissatisfaction with Bush's policies in Iraq and growing anger over rising gas prices. Bush's objective last night was to set out a strategy and commitment for recovery along the Gulf Coast. But the critical question is whether the damage will limit his ability to govern effectively in the remaining 40 months of his presidency and whether he will successfully rebuild the Gulf Coast and Iraq, let alone win approval for other major initiatives on taxes and Social Security.
In again taking responsibility for the federal government's failures, Bush signaled last night that the White House has decided not to contest the widespread perceptions that his administration failed in the early days of the crisis. By embracing those criticisms, they hope to make the issue a sideshow that will play out sometime in the future. Instead, after a halting start, the White House appears intently focused on demonstrating the president's capacity to manage the huge rebuilding effort ahead.
Bush's advisers believe that, despite the partisan finger-pointing over what happened, most Americans are not looking back and will judge the president on what happens going forward. But as Iraq has shown over the past two years, the facts on the ground shape public confidence in the president more than words or promises.
There is nothing certain about the success he hopes to demonstrate. The rebuilding at Ground Zero in New York has taken four years, and although the work in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast will begin almost immediately, the scope of the reconstruction virtually guarantees debates and delays that could sap public patience. Already there are signs of a brewing battle between business and government elites and organizers working with those displaced over whose voices will be heard in shaping the reconstruction.
Second-term slumps hit every reelected president, but often they come later than this one. Bush has little time to waste to rejuvenate his governing capacity, given the reality that lame-duck status awaits him in the not-too-distant future. But just as it will take time to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, it may take many months for Bush to rebound from what now troubles his presidency. Given the added burdens of Iraq and the economy, the president's road to recovery "will be longer and more difficult," said Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University.
The road back will also be contentious. Republicans and Democrats are at swords' points over who should investigate what happened -- a congressional committee as the GOP favors or an independent investigation proposed by the Democrats.
The president also may face opposition to his proposal to give the federal government and the U.S. military greater authority in a time of such disaster. There will be no hesitancy on either side to spend what it takes to rebuild -- Bush last night envisioned one of the largest reconstruction efforts in history -- but already sharp differences are emerging over the policies that animate that rebuilding.
The policies Bush outlined last night bear the distinctive stamp of a conservative president, a hallmark of an executive who has never shrunk from seeking to implement a right-leaning agenda even in the face of a divided country. They are long on tax relief and business grants and loans, and focused on entrepreneurial ideas. Bush already has drawn fire from Democrats for suspending the law that requires contractors to pay prevailing wages on federal projects in the regions, and there will be a battle over the proposal to provide private and parochial school vouchers to children of displaced families.
At other points in his presidency, Bush was strong enough to intimidate and often defeat his Democratic opponents. Although the Democrats remain relatively weak, Bush's own problems have emboldened them to challenge him at every turn and to believe they are better equipped to deal with the challenges in housing, education, health care and urban poverty that the hurricane and flooding have produced. Competing visions of how the federal government should respond will produce a vigorous debate -- far from the united response to 9/11.
The public appears to have little patience with partisan bickering right now, which complicates the Democrats' effort to challenge Bush, but every recent poll indicates the public knows who controls both the White House and the Congress, and Republicans likely will pay a greater price in next year's midterm elections for any perceived failures by Bush or the federal government.
Among the most worrisome elements of the aftermath of Katrina to the administration is the vast racial divide that has opened up over the federal government's response, with an overwhelming majority of African Americans believing the slow reaction was racially motivated and a similarly large majority of whites saying race was not the reason.
Bush and his advisers have denied there was any racial motivation in the government's response, but they know there will be a continuing political cost if they do not turn those perceptions around. The racial gulf threatens not only the administration's hope of slowly attracting more black support at the polls, but also the fabric of an already divided society. "It is something that all leaders across the country need to engage in, and this president will," said a senior administration official.
The president directly addressed the racial divide last night, noting that the Gulf Coast is afflicted with "deep, persistent poverty" and saying that poverty "has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which has cut off generations from the opportunity of America." He pledged bold action to "rise above the legacy of inequality."
For those who doubt Bush's ability to manage multiple challenges, administration officials would point to his nomination of Judge John G. Roberts Jr. as the next chief justice of the United States, which appears to be moving easily through the Senate.
But what confronts him in the Gulf Coast and Iraq is far more complex. His speech last night was only the beginning of the effort to repair his storm-damaged presidency. He has proved in the past his commitment to stay the course once he sets it. The question is whether, in his weakened condition, he can continue to persuade the country to follow.