Bush's Battle of New Orleans

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TOUR: Bush inspects hurricane damage from Air Force One

It was the end of summer and Bush's poll numbers had been in decline. Congress was ornery about the president's stalled legislative agenda. And cable TV was consumed with the disappearance of a beautiful girl far from home. Such was the situation on September 10, 2001 and the same could be said of Tuesday this week. Substitute Natalee Holloway, the missing American girl in Aruba, for Chandra Levy, the murdered congressional aide, and the parallels are kind of eerie.

The other parallel is Bush's awkward first hours of handling a crisis. September 11, 2001 is remembered as Bush's finest hour but of course the day was anything but. He sat frozen in a Florida school after being informed of the attack, flew around the country, at first sending Karen Hughes to reassure a worried nation before he made a statement from an Air Force base while a macho Donald Rumsfeld helped carry stretchers out of a burning Pentagon. By the time Bush got back to the Oval Office that night to address the nation, his response had paled compared to that of Rudolph Giuliani. But Bush began to turn things around quickly, the next morning promising all-but-unlimited assistance to rebuild and culminating in his famed bullhorn remarks to rescue workers at Ground Zero on September 14.

This time, Bush has been just as flatfooted. He couldn't seem to break off his schedule in San Diego, where he was commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory over Japan, while New Orleans filled like a bathtub. His remarks to the country from the Rose Garden yesterday about the Katrina disaster seemed oddly terse; his litany of aid meaningless without context. Sending five million military MRE meals sounded impressive until you realized there may be a million American refugees at this point. Does that mean we're only handing out five meals per person? And his interview with Diane Sawyer of ABC News seemed weirdly out of touch. His smirk came back; he stumbled into jargon like SPRo, the nickname for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and said things that seemed patently out of touch, including the now-infamous remark that no one could have foreseen the levee breaking. His inability to see any moral distinction between those who steal water and those who loot TV sets seemed odd—and at odds with local politicians like New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu. Then where was the call for sacrifice? While southern governors like Georgia Republican Sonny Perdue worried publicly about gas shortfalls as soon as this weekend and begged for conservation, Bush seemed to do so only as an afterthought.

But Bush has shown a tremendous capacity to right himself. Just as he blew his initial response to the Indian Ocean tsunami with smalltime aid and a comment from a lower level aide, and then came back strong by appointing his father and former President Bill Clinton to encourage Americans to donate to charity, he's done the same this time, even reenlisting the former presidents. Clinton especially gives him insulation. How can Democrats attack when Bill Clinton is at his side? They will anyway, but it'll be harder.

The Battle of New Orleans may yet be a cataclysmic event that scuttles Bush's political agenda. One can imagine how the reconstruction of an American city will put unbearable pressure on him to pull out of Iraq or abandon his partial privatization of Social Security. And it may yet emerge that the federal response to Katrina was even worse than it seemed, making the questions about pre-9/11 intelligence pale by comparison. Democrats harbor such fantasies. But Bush's career is all about people underestimating him and it would be a mistake to do so this time.