The main text of President Bush's nationally televised address last night was the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, but the clear subtext was the rebuilding of a presidency that is now at its lowest point ever, confronted by huge and simultaneous challenges at home and abroad -- and facing a country divided along partisan and racial lines.
Hurricane Katrina struck at the core of Bush's presidency by undermining the central assertion of his reelection campaign, that he was a strong and decisive leader who could keep the country safe in a crisis. Never again will he or his advisers be able to point to his often-praised performance after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, without being reminded of the fumbling and slow-off-the-mark response of his administration after the hurricane and the flooding in New Orleans.
His response to these criticisms last night was a speech largely shorn of soaring rhetoric and stirring turns of phrase of the kind that marked his reaction to the terrorist attacks. Instead, as if recognizing that his own road back will be one marked by steady but small steps, he spoke with workmanlike focus, spelling out the details of what has been done and will be done to help those displaced by the storm. He also took responsibility again for the government's failures.
Katrina has added an enormous new burden to a presidency already bending under the stresses of public dissatisfaction with Bush's policies in Iraq and growing anger over rising gas prices. Bush's objective last night was to set out a strategy and commitment for recovery along the Gulf Coast. But the critical question is whether the damage will limit his ability to govern effectively in the remaining 40 months of his presidency and whether he will be able to focus on, let alone win approval for, major initiatives other than Katrina and Iraq.
Second-term slumps hit every reelected president, but often they come later than this one. Bush has little time to waste to rejuvenate his governing capacity, given the reality that lame-duck status awaits him in the not-too-distant future. But just as it will take time to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, it may take many months for Bush to rebound from what now troubles his presidency.
"You would have thought there was a reservoir of good will for President Bush, but the dissatisfaction with Iraq and gas prices provided a negative predicate for what happened on first of September," said Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. "Therefore, the road back to recovery will be longer and more difficult."
The road back will be contentious. Republicans and Democrats are at swords' points over who should investigate what happened -- a congressional committee or an independent investigation. The president also may face opposition to his proposal to give the federal government and the U.S. military greater authority in a time of such disaster. There will be no hesitancy on either side to spend what it takes to rebuild -- Bush last night envisioned one of the largest reconstruction efforts in history -- but already sharp differences are emerging over the policies that animate that rebuilding.
The policies Bush outlined last night bear the distinctive stamp of a conservative president, a hallmark of an executive who has never shrunk from seeking to implement a right-leaning agenda even in the face of a divided country. They are long on tax relief and business grants and loans, and focused on entrepreneurial ideas. Democrats want more focus on social safety-net issues and direct aid for the victims.
At other points in his presidency, Bush was strong enough to intimidate and often defeat his Democratic opponents. Although the Democrats remain relatively weak, Bush's own problems have emboldened them to challenge him at every turn, and to believe they are better equipped to deal with the kind of challenges in housing, education, health care and urban poverty that the hurricane and flooding have produced. Competing visions of how the federal government should respond will produce a vigorous debate -- far from the united response to 9/11.
Vast racial divide
Perhaps most worrisome to the administration is the vast racial divide that has opened up over the federal government's response to what happened in New Orleans, with an overwhelming majority of African Americans believing the slow reaction was racially motivated and a similarly large majority of whites saying race was not the reason.
Bush and his advisers have denied there was any racial motivation in the government's response, but they know there will be a continuing political cost if they do not turn those perceptions around.
"The fact that 70 percent of the African American community believe it to be true is troubling, and it reveals this kind of stark contrast in views between the African American community and the broader American public," said a senior administration official, who declined to be identified. "It is something that all leaders across the country need to engage in, and this president will."
In his speech, Bush directly addressed the racial divide, noting that the Gulf Coast is afflicted with "deep, persistent poverty" and said that poverty "has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which has cut off generations from the opportunity of America." Bush pledged bold action to "rise above the legacy of inequality."
Bush's speech last night was the beginning of the effort to rebuild his presidency. Some of the Republican support that has been eroded is likely to return. But as Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego, put it, "He'll be going back to where he was a month ago rather than where he was two years ago. That will make it hard to get bold initiatives through Congress."
Bush's advisers hope that, despite the partisan finger-pointing over what happened, most Americans are not looking back and will judge the president on what happens going forward. But as Iraq has shown over the past two years, the facts on the ground shape public confidence in the president more than words or promises from the president. Now his future depends on success in two very different and difficult places.