Hurricane Katrina has thrust the twin issues of race and poverty at President Bush, who faces steep challenges in dealing with both because of a domestic agenda that envisions deep cuts in long-standing anti-poverty programs and relationships with many black leaders frayed by years of mutual suspicion.
In the storm's aftermath, the White House has been scrambling to quell perceptions that race was a factor in the slow federal response to Katrina and that its policies have contributed to the festering poverty propelled into public view by the disaster.
Last week, Bush summoned faith-based relief organizations and religious leaders -- many of them African American -- to a White House meeting to discuss his vision for providing long-term help for impoverished people displaced by the storm.
He dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to her home state of Alabama. He also has had his political surrogates reach out to civil rights groups that previously felt ignored by the White House.
"Katrina has been an attention-getting experience for this administration," said Bruce S. Gordon, president and chief executive officer of the NAACP. "It's clear that the administration has not had [black and poor people] as high on their priority list as they should have."
Angry about how an affiliate of the NAACP portrayed him in a 2000 political ad, Bush has rejected invitations to speak at the organization's past five conventions, making him the first sitting president in more than 80 years not to address the group. NAACP Chairman Julian Bond has excoriated Bush as a reactionary conservative. In the past week, however, Gordon has had multiple conversations with top administration officials and fielded calls from aides to White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove.
"They wanted to be sure they knew what we were thinking," Gordon said.
Bush also has resolved to tackle the poverty that ensnared 28 percent of New Orleans residents and many others on the Gulf Coast. Many of those poor people were unable to heed warnings to evacuate as the storm approached, compounding the disaster as tens of thousands of mostly black residents overwhelmed sparse government provisions when they sought shelter at the Superdome and convention center in New Orleans.
"Sometimes it takes a natural disaster to reveal a social disaster," said Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourner's, a liberal evangelical journal.
During Tuesday's White House meeting with 20 religious leaders and representatives from relief groups, Bush vowed to provide job programs, health care, life-skills training and housing aid to those displaced by the storm. Echoing a position taken by some civil rights leaders, he asserted that it was insensitive to refer to the poor people fleeing New Orleans as "refugees," a term that for some evokes people fleeing their native country.
When some people at the meeting said that New Orleans residents and local businesses should reap much of the economic benefit from the huge investment that will be required to rebuild the city, Bush readily agreed, according to one participant.
"He didn't receive many of these concerns as some kind of 'race' issue," said C. Jay Matthews, a Cleveland minister who attended the meeting. "There was a feeling that maybe what we have been doing up to now to fight poverty maybe hasn't been effective and we need to move toward long-term solutions."
Some doubt Bush's motives
But some skeptics fear these reassuring words are a disguise for pursuing long-held conservative goals that are viewed with hostility by many black leaders. Congressional Republicans, for example, have voiced opposition to federal programs that set aside government contracts for minorities. And Bush has already moved to suspend the law requiring federal contractors to pay workers the average wage in the region, holding down salaries for many minority laborers.
In the place of traditional poverty programs, Bush has touted faith-based social service programs, calling them more efficient and effective than those run by the government. Many programs of an earlier generation, he says, have served only to perpetuate the plight of the poor.
Overcoming mistrust of blacks compounded by Katrina is an important hurdle in one of Bush's political goals -- making the GOP more competitive with traditionally Democratic African Americans.
"What we've been trying to do is what we believe will help us close the gap we see in America in terms of education, health care, home ownership and wealth," said Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee. "We have policies that will actually achieve those goals."
To underscore his outreach efforts, when the president toured a hurricane evacuee shelter near Baton Rouge last week, he was accompanied by the Rev. T.D. Jakes, a prominent black evangelist who has known Bush for years. He also went to New Orleans yesterday. Those trips came after Bush was criticized for having little contract with poor, black victims during an earlier visit.
"I mean, it's puzzling, given his immediate response during 9/11, that he did not feel a greater sense of empathy towards the folks that were experiencing this enormous disaster," Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said yesterday on ABC's "This Week."
Whatever approach the administration takes as it moves forward, any Katrina-inspired increase in federal outlays to alleviate poverty would represent a sharp turn for an administration that has moved to reshape government by reducing outlays for social programs by encouraging individual ownership of -- and responsibility for -- everything from housing to health care and retirement accounts. Meanwhile, White House budget makers have projected deep cuts in traditional poverty programs, including food stamps and public housing.
But the calamity spawned by New Orleans has placed Bush under new pressure. A poll last week by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that two-thirds of African Americans believe the government's response to the storm would have been faster if most of the victims had been white. Also, 71 percent of blacks agree that the disaster revealed that racial inequality remains a major problem in the country -- a sentiment shared by 32 percent of whites.
A prominent Louisiana politician called this perception unfair. "The two parishes south of New Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines, are mostly white. They are devastated and they arguably got a lot less attention than New Orleans," said former Louisiana senator John Breaux (D), who has worked closely with Bush. "A lot of people didn't get out because they didn't have a car. This is more a problem of poverty, rather than race."
Rep. Barbara T. Lee (D-Calif.), however, accused Bush of being indifferent to the poor. "If anyone ever doubted that there are two Americas, this disaster and our government's shameful response to it have made the division clear for all to see."
Addressing a meeting of black Baptists in Miami last Wednesday, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said the government's slow response revealed "the ugly truth that skin color, age and economics played a significant role in who survived and who did not."
Michael L. Williams, the only black member of the elected Railroad Commission of Texas and a longtime Bush friend, said the racial and class divisions pushed into the national debate by Katrina present a formidable test for Bush. The answers, he said, will come with how Bush addresses the underlying issues.
"It isn't surprising that African Americans across the country feel pain for the victims of this disaster," Williams said. "When people feel pain, they want to find someone to blame. There is no doubt that it adds to the challenge facing us. But the real story is going to be what it always is: What is really being done about education? About jobs? About housing?"