Four years ago, US President George W. Bush was on shaky political ground. He had barely won the controversial 2000 election, and polls showed the American people remained doubtful about him. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush found his voice and the American people rallied around his presidency. Thanks to Osama bin Laden, Bush's popularity soared, and while his ratings had diminished by the time of last year's election, his "war on terrorism" helped him win a second term.
This month, another crisis, Hurricane Katrina, probably killed at least as many Americans as the terrorist attacks in 2001, but it had the opposite effect on Bush's poll numbers, which dropped to an all-time low. Why the startling difference?
For one thing, the Sept. 11 attacks were by a human enemy, and despite inadequate domestic preparations for such an event, Americans' anger was directed outward. Katrina, on the other hand, was a terrible act of nature, but one that was predicted by the national weather service with impressive accuracy. The inadequate preparation and slow response by the Bush administration meant that anger was directed at the president.
To be sure, some of the blame for poor preparation belongs to state and local officials. But the Bush administration bears a significant share of the responsibility. In the 2000 election campaign, Bush praised former US president Bill Clinton's Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) for its effectiveness. As president, he treated it as a source of patronage, replacing its top officials with political cronies who had little experience in managing emergencies.
To make matters worse, the administration shoehorned FEMA into its massive new bureaucracy, the Department of Homeland Security. During the 2004 election campaign, Bush claimed that the new department had made Americans safer. But the halting and weak response to Katrina has called this into question. If it was difficult to evacuate and supply a small city like New Orleans, how would New York or Los Angeles fare?
Katrina has also raised questions about other items on the president's agenda. One of the top priorities had been the Republican plan to complete the repeal of the estate tax on the richest Americans. But, as the costs of responding to Katrina mount, adding to the federal deficit, it seems difficult to proceed as planned.
Moreover, rising gasoline prices have called attention to the shortcomings of the Bush administration's energy policy, which includes recently passed legislation that contains inadequate requirements for energy conservation.
The press, meanwhile, has reported on speculation about the relationship between warmer ocean waters and the frequency of severe hurricanes, thus highlighting the low priority that the administration has given to environmental problems in general and global climate change in particular.
But Bush will survive Katrina. The floodwaters will recede in New Orleans and reconstruction will begin. Already the scenes of looters exploiting the chaos in the early aftermath of the storm have been replaced with stories of charitable contributions from other parts of the country, of children being accepted into schools outside the city, and of families being helped by strangers. On the anniversary of the Sept.. 11 attacks, a unit of the New York City Police Department was helping out in New Orleans, and the city returned a fire engine that New Orleans had earlier donated as a symbol of solidarity.