By contributor
updated 8/31/2005 10:51:07 AM ET 2005-08-31T14:51:07

For years the Pentagon’s standing readiness plans required the country to be able to fight two major wars simultaneously. But no one anticipated what we face now: a war in Mesopotamia and another along the Mississippi.

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We have journalist Malcolm Gladwell to thank for the idea that every social phenomenon has a dramatic “tipping point.” It doesn’t always work that way. And yet Hurricane Katrina is just such a moment. We are a big, strong country — and New Orleans will, somehow, survive — but you do get the sense, as President Bush finally arrived here after a month-long vacation, that a political hurricane is gathering force, and it’s going to hit the capital any day.

As we approach the fourth anniversary of 9/11, Americans are facing a different anguish from a different, but no less iconic city. New Yorkers, on behalf of the rest of us, absorbed Al Qaeda’s attack and came back stronger than ever. We begin the fifth year of a “war against terror” that has brought some gains, but has cost 2,000 lives and half a trillion dollars — and there is no end in sight.

And now: the Storm and the Flood, which have inundated the Gulf Coast in deadly water. This is, literally, an invasion of the homeland, and it will require a war-like response from a nation and a military already stretched thin. National Guard officials insist that they have enough men and women on hand to do the job , but common sense tells you that they could use the others stationed abroad. The U.S. Navy is dispatching supply ships to the region, but battling the waters that cover the region will require many more resources.

Andy Jackson won the Battle of New Orleans. Will George Bush? His poll numbers already at near-record low levels, he will have to oversee the rescue of the Gulf in the midst of a changing climate in Washington. The public’s sense of where America is headed — the “right direction/wrong track” numbers — are dismal. Gas prices are high and unsettling. Congressional Democrats, reluctant since 9/11 to take on a “war president,” finally have decided to do so. And Republicans, knowing that they’ll be facing the voters a year from now, are beginning to seek ways to distance themselves from him.

This president doesn’t need Karl Rove to explain the political importance of disaster relief. It’s something Bush responds to naturally, and he knows the risks of seeming to be an insensitive, to-the-manor-born president. When hurricanes hit Florida before the last election, he and his brother, Jeb, were on the case, Big Time. Now three Red States are hit, hard, and the challenge is likely to be much greater.

Meanwhile, he will have to preside over yet another 9/11 anniversary, this one coming at a time when most Americans have decided that the war in Iraq shouldn’t have been fought and that it hasn’t made us safer at home. Bush will face calls not only for the release of more oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve , but for a wholesale consideration of his energy and environmental policies.

And just after Labor Day, hearings will start in the Judiciary Committee on the nomination of Judge John G. Roberts, Jr.  Expect the Democrats to drop their caution and go after him with all they’ve got. They’re coming to the conclusion that they have nothing to lose, and they are being pushed in that combative direction by a grassroots base furious at the congressional party for not having taken a tougher line against the president months if not years ago.

But now they sense blood in the rising water.

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