Hard New Test for President
By DAVID E. SANGER
Published: September 1, 2005
(must register to the NY Times to view original article)
WASHINGTON, Aug. 31 - Not since he sat in a Florida classroom as the World
Trade Center burned a thousand miles away has President Bush faced a test
quite like the one he returned to Washington to confront this afternoon.
After initially stumbling through that disorienting day almost exactly four
years ago, Mr. Bush entered what many of his aides believe were the finest
hours of his presidency. But unlike 2001, when Mr. Bush was freshly elected
and there was little question that the response would include a military
strike, Mr. Bush confronts this disaster with his political capital depleted
by the war in Iraq.
Even before Hurricane Katrina, governors were beginning to question whether
National Guard units stretched to the breaking point by service in Iraq
would be available for domestic emergencies. Those concerns have now been
amplified by scenes of looting and disorder. There is also the added
question of whether the Department of Homeland Security, designed primarily
to fight terrorism, can cope with what Mr. Bush called Wednesday "one of the
worst natural disasters in our country's history."
All this has inextricably linked Mr. Bush's foreign agenda, especially Iraq,
to the issue of how well he manages the federal response to the monumental
problems in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Mr. Bush knows the risks. He
saw up close the political damage done to his father 13 years ago this week,
when the senior Mr. Bush was dispatching fighter jets to maintain a no-fly
zone over parts of Iraq and promoting his trade agenda while 250,000
Floridians were reeling from the impact of Hurricane Andrew.
But the current president, in contrast, prides himself as a crisis manager.
He observed in a debate with Vice President Al Gore in 2000 that natural
catastrophes were "a time to test your mettle."
The next few weeks will determine whether he can manage several challenges
at once, in the chaos of Iraq and the humanitarian and economic fallout
along the Gulf Coast.
Success could help him emerge from a troubled moment in his presidency, when
his approval ratings have hit an all-time low. But it is hardly assured.
His first challenge is to show that both his reconfigured government and the
National Guard units can perform on both fronts. Mr. Bush, his aides pointed
out Wednesday, declared a disaster even before the storm hit, enabling the
Federal Emergency Management Agency to deploy early. But while the National
Guard was called in quickly, there are already questions about whether the
aid would be swifter if deployments to Iraq were not so intense: Mississippi
has 3,800 Guard troops in Iraq, and Louisiana has about 3,000.
That leaves more than 60 percent of their Guard still in the state, which
Joseph M. Allbaugh, one of Mr. Bush's closest friends and his first head of
FEMA, said in an interview Wednesday should be plenty for the challenge
"If anyone is telling you that Iraq is getting in the way, well that's
hogwash," Mr. Allbaugh said from Baton Rouge, where he was clinging to a bad
cellphone connection while trying to help muster private industry to aid in
the disaster relief.
The longer-term risk is that the storm's aftermath will push gasoline prices
to a breaking point - something Mr. Bush alluded to Wednesday when he warned
that "our citizens must understand this storm has disrupted the capacity to
make gasoline and distribute gasoline." Even before returning to Washington,
Mr. Bush approved loans from the country's Strategic Oil Reserve. But that
is at best a short-term measure, and should prices continue to rise, Mr.
Bush will inevitably confront the question of whether his administration was
ill prepared to absorb an oil shock at a time of conflict in the Middle
Mr. Bush's instinctive response to such moments, his longtime aides and
friends say, is to set up measurements to determine whether his efforts are
adequately addressing a problem. "He likes being a hands-on manager," said
Mr. Allbaugh. "He wants numbers, he wants to be able to show that the ball
is moving down the field." That was evident Wednesday in the Rose Garden,
when Mr. Bush started ticking off statistics on the number of people
rescued, the numbers of meals-ready-to-eat that have been delivered, the
number of people already in shelters.
It is reminiscent of how Mr. Bush has argued that progress is being made in
Iraq. But as the administration has learned in Iraq, the imagery of violent
chaos, repeated over and over, can undercut even the most frequently cited
statistics. And so Mr. Bush's biggest risk may be an inability to control
circumstances that are beyond his ability to shape from Washington.
"The great thing about this president is that he doesn't try to use tragedy
to gain immediate attention for himself," said Bob Martinez, a former
governor of Florida who has endured his share of hurricanes and other
disasters. "He talks to those with knowledge, and then he acts."
But now, he said, "there needs to be a powerful message to the country to
energize the help," a message Mr. Bush plans to amplify, his aides say, when
he visits the stricken areas, probably Friday or Saturday. Mr. Martinez
noted that "the risk is that there is sometimes a big disconnect between you
when you speak and when bottles of water end up in people's hands."
That may be a more complicated problem in this disaster, veterans of such
operations warn, than it was after 9/11. Mr. Allbaugh noted that for all the
horror of that day, the immediate damage was confined to "16 acres in New
York" and part of the Pentagon, and "here you have hundreds of thousands of
square miles" of misery. And the problems in the region will vary
tremendously, from caring for the newly homeless in New Orleans to wiped-out
ports along the coast.