By MARGARET TALEV
September 06, 2005
Four years later, Hurricane Katrina could yield a larger number of deaths than the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and it is demanding the same sort of rapid and major response by the federal government. As he toured areas affected by the hurricane on Friday, the president even sought to link the two tragedies. "It's as if the entire Gulf Coast were obliterated by a - the worst kind of weapon you can imagine," he said.
But the nation, at least so far, is not rallying around the president in the same way, and political experts say Katrina probably has more potential to hurt than help the president, whose public approval ratings before the hurricane hit had been battered by growing discontent with the war in Iraq and rising gas prices at home.
There are a litany of reasons, past, present and future: The government's early inability to get water and food to tens of thousands of victims, to rescue people stranded on rooftops or to contain violence. Bush's awkward emotional response in his initial public remarks. A failure by the administration and Congress to fund proposed levee repairs for years prior to the hurricane. Racial undercurrents of a disaster that has disproportionately affected poor, black Americans. The immediate economic impact on all Americans in terms of yet higher gas prices, and fears of broader or long-term economic damage. Perceptions that an over-reliance on National Guard troops and equipment to fight in Iraq left a depleted stock on the home front to respond when disaster struck. And the cause of the disaster.
"The big difference is it's a natural disaster versus a terrorist attack," said Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "With 9/11, there was the sense the nation itself was under attack. That gave it a greater sense of unity. This time, it's one part of the country that's been affected. What we're most interested in is seeing to what degree there's a national unity that occurred after 9/11. I'd expect the sense of national unity may not be as strong."
Critics are accusing Bush of having been slow to respond to the hurricane because he was preoccupied with the war. The hurricane made landfall Monday. On Tuesday, the day levees broke in New Orleans, Bush was in California, delivering a speech to commemorate the surrender of Japan in World War II.
He announced he would return to Washington, but rather than flying directly back, stopped at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. The president was in constant communication with officials in Washington and the Southeast, and the response already was underway. But the symbolic effect of the delay in his return opened him to criticism.
"Democrats should be very aggressive about calling to account Bush and the Republican Congress on this issue," said Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf. "The federal government has been slow in their response. Republicans run the country. There's sometimes a tendency to say we all have to be together. But people from the affected areas have to stand up and say something about this."
On another front, various engineers and Southeastern residents have noted that politicians for years have failed to adequately fund hurricane and flood preparedness despite warnings of such dire consequences - and that the Bush administration and Congress continued this pattern of under-funding while approving tax cuts for the wealthy and pet transportation projects for powerful members of Congress.
Because the storm hit oil refineries, gas prices have spiked past $3 a gallon. Impacts on individual sectors of the economy - the automobile industry, agriculture, housing - are only beginning to emerge. The storm may leave hundreds of thousands homeless and jobless for months, and create refugee problems in other states. The president himself has said the Gulf Coast region will need years to recover. While Bush has spoken confidently of New Orleans rising again, it is unclear how that would happen, how long it would take and who would pay for it.
Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California and a former congressional domestic policy analyst, said Bush's legacy in terms of managing the hurricane will come in two waves - the short-term rescue and the long-term management and rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
Even if the president manages to turn around the public's perception of the government's response to the hurricane, Pitney doesn't expect Bush could regain the sort of public approval that in the weeks following the 9/11 terrorist attacks approached 90 percent. Because of the Iraq war, Pitney said, "there's just too much entrenched opposition."
An effective response to Katrina could stop the erosion in Bush's political standing, Pitney said. "But he has to do it the old fashioned way. He has to earn it."
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