In times of disaster, presidents are expected to be comforters-in-chief, yet since Hurricane Katrina President Bush has a blemished record in that role.
He reacted quickly to the Minnesota bridge collapse by scheduling a visit for Saturday, but only after an awkward initial reaction in which the White House emphasized that fixing structural deficiencies was the state’s responsibility.
Neither the president nor the Democratic-led Congress wants to be seen as repeating the mistakes of Katrina, when the early federal response was slow and hamhanded. Nor do they want to be perceived as playing politics with a tragedy.
There is little doubt that the collapsed bridge over the Mississippi River will be rebuilt a lot quicker than the hurricane-devastated city near that river’s mouth, New Orleans.
Congress on Friday was working on legislation to provide $250 million in emergency money.
Bush’s plan to visit Minneapolis a day after a visit from first lady Laura Bush follows a recent pattern of prompt trips to disaster scenes.
Yet, sometimes in its early reactions the White House has seemed politically tone deaf.
For instance, the administration had to backtrack after initially blaming Kansas’ Democratic governor, Kathleen Sebelius, for a slow response to a devastating tornado on May 4 in Greensburg, Kan.
Sebelius had complained that National Guard deployments to Iraq had hampered the state’s ability to respond. White House press secretary Tony Snow shot back that Sebelius failed to request help from the federal government, saying “as far as we know, the only thing the governor requested are FM radios.”
“Finger-pointing and back-and-forth is not helpful to anybody,” Sebelius responded. Snow backed down. Bush visited Greensburg.
In any finger-pointing in the Minneapolis bridge collapse, the White House risks offending a Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty.
Pawlenty on Thursday ordered an immediate inspection of all bridges in the state with similar designs to the fallen I-35W bridge — but said the state was never warned that the collapsed bridge needed to be closed or immediately repaired.
He suggested that anybody who didn’t see the national scope of the widespread decaying of U.S. infrastructure was “naive or misleading.”
'Being above the blame'
More than 70,000 bridges across the country are rated structurally deficient and engineers estimate repairing them all would take at least a generation and cost more than $188 billion.
Snow, the White House press secretary, said the morning after the bridge collapse, that the “various states” were responsible for taking a look at bridge structures. He cited a 2005 report that noted structural deficiencies in the Minneapolis span.
“But I think it is safe to say — and this is an important point to make, because there will be lots of ‘who’s responsible,’ ‘who could have done what.’ The fact is: If anybody has knowledge that something like this can happen, they’re going to act on it,” he said.
Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University, said the White House is “so much on the defensive right now that I think their initial reaction was to say, ‘We just don’t want to be blamed.”’
“The president’s role is to start the conversation by being above the blame, the finger-pointing,” said Light.
On Friday, White House spokesman Scott Stanzel sought to sound a sympathetic tone.
“The whole nation has been struck by this tragedy,” he said. “We’re going to make sure that bridge gets rebuilt as quickly as possible.”
Perhaps even in time for the 2008 Republican convention in St. Paul?
Praised for reaction in other tragedies
Bush was widely praised for his actions in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, including uplifting remarks through a bull horn at New York’s ground zero.
But he came under withering criticism for the response to Katrina in 2005.
Since then, he has been quick to visit disaster sites.
This past April, Bush performed comforting duties after the Virginia Tech shootings. Bush reacted that day from the White House, then visited the campus the next day, hugging families, signing a memorial and receiving a standing ovation at a convocation.
“He performed better in the Virginia Tech crisis than on many others,” said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. Still, Sabato said, “Katrina should have been the ultimate lesson for the Bush administration, but apparently it has not been.”
In situations such as the Minnesota bridge collapse, “people expect a president and a federal government to do absolutely everything possible. No ifs, ands or buts,” said Sabato.