Doug Mills / Win Mcnamee  /  AP File / Getty Images
Three days after the terror attack on the World Trade Center, President Bush stood atop the rubble alongside New York City firemen and New York political leaders. On Friday, the president sat with a victim of Hurricane Katrina in Biloxi, Miss.
By contributor
updated 9/2/2005 6:36:04 PM ET 2005-09-02T22:36:04

History doesn’t repeat itself, but there are political echoes of 9/11 sounding loudly all over the Gulf Coast, and, for the most part, the comparisons between catastrophes in two iconic cities — New York and New Orleans — aren’t likely to help boost public regard for the presidency of George W. Bush.

No president knows the hand fate will deal him, but it’s more obvious than ever what Bush’s fate is: it’s to be faced with homeland attacks (one man-made, one natural) of almost unimaginable proportions. But wherever you look in examining the politics of the two nightmares, the one in New Orleans looks worse.

Here’s what I mean, point by point:

The country: Unity v. Division
The events of 9/11 united the country, fusing it, however temporarily, into an alloy of immense tensile strength. Men and women of all walks of life in New York (and Washington, and on Flight 93) were affected — and, just as important, it looked that way on TV. This tragedy is playing far differently, and for Bush, more dangerously.

Wealthy families have suffered and died along the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River. I know of Kennedyesque family compounds along the coast that were obliterated—not one stick of wood remains; I know of old family mansions in the French Quarter ruined by standing water.

But the faces are the facts: and they largely are poor, and they are more than predominantly black, and anyone who knows New Orleans a little knows that these faces were largely out of sight in the tourism and mythology of the town — and now they are out there for all to see, many of them dead. It is imagery that demagogues will exploit, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t truth there. Bush ignores this at his — and the Republican Party’s peril.

The damage: Technical v. Physical
The “attacks” hit two great -- but very different -- commercial hubs. Lower Manhattan was and remains the center of digital and paper-based trade, not to mention the Ground Zero of the global stock market trading system. Through heroic measures, communications and computer crews were able to restore the essential functions by creating an alternative digital reality. The New York Stock Exchange was back in business within days — a tremendous technical feat.

New Orleans is less about the digital world than the physical one: not a river of gigabytes but of barges. Fixing the market hub of New Orleans is likely to take longer—much longer. Grain shipments wait to go out in long lines at non-existent docks; oil rigs have to be rebuilt in the Gulf.

Local leadership: Brilliant v. Whatever
There is a reason why Rudy Giuliani is, in early polls, the surprising leader for the GOP nomination in 2008, even though he is pro-choice, pro-gay rights and many other verboten things. And the reason is the leadership he displayed as mayor of New York in the aftermath of 9/11. As his rather quiet but calm backup, Gov. George Pataki of New York State also got and deserved high marks. The president could and did benefit from their strength and skill.

Fairly or not — and the physical situation in many ways is so much worse — no Giuliani has yet emerged in Louisiana. Again, it isn’t fair: New York as a whole was not destroyed, not even close. It absorbed a blow to the solar plexus; it didn’t literally drown. But in New Orleans and Louisiana the leaders have often looked as panicked, angry and dispirited as their constituents. If someone is going to be calm and leader-like, it’ll have to be George Bush.

Bush's role: Commander-in-chief v. top bureaucrat
The president was and remains shielded from criticism to some extent because of his role (which he always reminds voters of) as a “war president” leading a nation against an evil  Osama Bin Laden. If Democrats and their media fellow travelers were muted in their criticism of him, it may, to some extent, have been because they didn’t want to seem like inadvertent allies of "The Enemy."

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In this case, Bush isn’t wearing the gold epaulets of wartime leadership. He’s the guy who’s supposed to make sure that the emergency response works, and that it is prompt and caring and focused.

What was known about “the enemy”
Able Danger notwithstanding, there are still few who would seriously argue that the Bush Administration knew enough to have prevented the 9/11 attack. There were dots, but they remained largely unconnected.

You can’t say that about New Orleans. Just the opposite: last year the government ran a simulation of just this kind of event. All you had to do was read National Geographic or watch the Weather Channel to know, for example, that Lake Pontchatrain could slosh around like a shallow pan of water — and easily overtop the berms and floodwalls. As soon as Katrina started heading for New Orleans — and certainly from the moment it hit land — the president had every reason to expect disaster.

The overall landscape
When 9/11 happened, the Bush presidency had barely begun. It was off to a slow start, and the bitterness of the 2000 race remained. But it was a tea party compared with the atmosphere now — with oil prices shooting up and a war in Iraq generating controversy and division, lost lives and hundreds of billions of dollars spent.

Possibility of success
There is one bright spot, if you can call it that, for the president politically. As Donald Rumsfeld said three years ago, we still have “no metric” for knowing whether in Iraq we are killing more terrorists than we are creating. We don’t really know how the “war on terrorism” is going, and there are reasons to worry that it isn’t going well.

But, in this Battle of New Orleans, the president has the chance, however daunting the circumstances, to ultimately “win.” It won’t be when Bourbon Street returns — that may be gone for good — but when the faces of the people of New Orleans express something other than the desperation and anguish we see now.

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