President Bush, Meet President Johnson

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When George Bush addressed the nation this evening from New Orleans' Jackson Square in shirtsleeves and no tie, a statue of Old Hickory loomed over the President's left shoulder. But it wasn't victor of the Battle of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson, that Bush was channeling; it should have been a bronzed Lyndon Johnson by the Presidential side. To be sure, Bush has never been a small government conservative; he didn't come to office, for instance, vowing to abolish the Department of Education; he expanded it. But no one could have foreseen the massive expansion of government under his reign—the creation of a new prescription drug entitlement, the invasion of two countries on the Asian continent, the greatest realignment of the federal government in history. And now the wholesale rebuilding of an American city and the care of thousands of American evacuees.

Journalists (and Republicans) are fond of remarking on how Bush has tried to avoid the mistakes of his father. And that is surely true. But Bush now faces the woes of his fellow Texan, LBJ, too—how to expand government at home and fight a sluggish, unsatisfying war abroad. Johnson did so with a landslide election victory, a surging economy and a more optimistic view of government at his back. Bush lacks those advantages and has skyrocketing energy prices to contend with as well.

An important task for the White House was to make amends for the last couple of weeks of fumbling, and tonight was as contrite as we've ever seen the usually swaggering Bush. Did it work? The prime time address has never been Bush's forte. In September 2003 he told the country that he was asking Congress for $87 billion to fund the war in Iraq that his aides had said could be paid for with Iraqi oil revenue. It bombed. There was a firestorm over the cost—an idea that seems quaint given the hundreds of billions that Iraq and Katrina will end up on the taxpayer's dime. A year later, he choppered from the White House to the Army War College in Pennsylvania to sell a war in Iraq that was losing support at home. And he did the same at North Carolina's Ft. Bragg earlier this year. Neither speech seemed to help.

Still, tonight's address will probably give Bush a boost. It hit all the notes that the White House has been struggling to sound for two weeks: an acceptance of responsibility, an acknowledgement of failure, a promise to do better, and an acknowledgement of race. It was far better than anything that's been said to date. But the details of Bush's speech are surely going to be controversial. The federal government still seems determined to build trailer cities instead of providing housing vouchers. Bush promised that the feds would rebuild the "great majority" of the "public infrastructure." But what of the houses that were lost that will not be covered by insurance? And there was no talk of rebuilding the Louisiana coastline, the best natural buffer against another ravaging flood of the city. "A greater federal authority and broader role for the armed forces" is what Bush called for, but what will that mean for the longstanding constraints on the armed forces at home? Isn't the military already stretched too thin?

Bush blamed "the system" but he didn't hint that any individuals had done wrong although he allowed "I as president am responsible for the problem." He called on Cabinet agencies to assess themselves but that seemed like a less than rigorous probe. He refused to endorse the establishment of a 9/11-style independent commission just as he resisted the original 9/11 Commission for months and before eventually conceding. Odds are that he will this time, too. He called on every American to participate in the recovery but didn't ask for sacrifice—no talk of deferring his prescription drug benefit, as many conservatives are now urging.

Bush won't be judged on one speech alone. He'll be rated on his performance, which thus far even White House aides acknowledge has been lacking. But whether he can deliver or not, Bush's era of Big Government is here. His speech wasn't a bad way to usher it in.