The President's Working Labor Day

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NOMINEE: Roberts said he is "honored and humbled" to be chosen

George W. Bush, famous for his vacations, did not rest on Labor Day. Instead, his holiday began with a meeting with Judge John Roberts at the White House where Bush offered to make him Chief Justice. Roberts said yes immediately and thanked Bush. It's uncertain who was happier; Roberts was fulfilling a lifelong ambition, but Bush was getting his first good news in days. It was a smart political move for a beleaguered president. Roberts seemed to be on his way to confirmation before Chief Justice William Rehnquist died at his Virginia home on Saturday night. Now, barring some unforeseen development, Bush will have his own chief justice in place when the Court begins its new session in October—and he will make his mark on the court for 30 or 40 years. And since Sandra Day O'Connor has declared that she'll remain in her seat until a replacement is confirmed, Bush will have a full court this fall. What's more, at a time when his popularity is at its lowest point and he's getting hammered for the federal response to Katrina, Roberts gives Republicans something to cheer about. It rallies an uncertain base.

Who does Bush chose to take the O'Connor seat? Conservatives are taking aim once more at Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who they believe might be too moderate. If Bush picks a woman, there's Judge Edith Clement of New Orleans who lost her home in Hurricane Katrina. Bush passed her over last time but her being a storm victim might now give her a certain elan. Priscilla Owen or Edith Jones, both circuit court judges, would please conservatives but would rally Democrats. One White House official says that there's close scrutiny of Larry Thompson, who served as Number two in the Ashcroft Justice department. As African-American, Thompson's nomination might help ease racial tensions in the wake of the New Orleans disaster. One concern among administration officials is the large number of cases that Thompson might have to recuse himself from because he participated in them at Justice.

In normal times that would be enough for the day. But by 8:30 a.m. Bush had left from Andrews Air Force Base for his second trip to the disaster zone. It was better than his first on Friday. He didn't offer any untenable defenses of the federal response and he didn't say anything too off key like he did last time when he vowed to rebuild Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott's home and fondly recalled his partying days in New Orleans. Bush visited victims of Katrina at a shelter near Baton Rouge, where he was joined by T.D. Jakes, the charismatic African-American religious broadcaster. The President met with emergency managers in Baton Rouge and in Mississippi as well.

Still, his visit studiously avoided the hardest-hit areas of Katrina and the itinerary all but guaranteed that he'd be met with friendly audiences. The displaced persons he met at the Bethany World Church were well cared for and for the most part grateful for their surroundings. In Poplarville, Mississippi, Bush toured a middle class neighborhood where the damage seemed minimal. Homes were intact, although many pine trees were felled. But most seemed to have hit lawns and carports rather than causing real structural damage to homes. Bush joked with Alabama Power workers who were helping to restore power to the comfortable neighborhood, which led Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour to inform the crew that he had "married an Alabama girl." The whole tone still seemed out of step with the utter destruction along the Mississippi coast and the carnage in New Orleans. Until Bush plunges headfirst into New Orleans worst-hit neighborhoods he's going to have a hard time correcting the impression that he just doesn't get it.

Much of Bush's presidency has been built around keeping him away from unfriendly audiences. His campaign rallies were carefully screened and so are his policy events where he chews the fat about issues like Social Security. But that instinct surely can't be serving him well at a time when the country feels like a collective primal scream over seeing their countrymen left suffering.