The missteps on Katrina came at a crucial moment in Bush’s second term, when his top legislative priority at home, Social Security reform, was already on life support and the war in Iraq was becoming a mounting economic and political burden. The Administration that had been determined to defy history and ward off the second-term curse and early lame-duck status by controlling the agenda and seizing opportunities appears increasingly at the mercy of events, at home and abroad.
And as if the West Wing were suddenly snakebit, his franchise player, senior adviser and deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove, was on the disabled list for part of last week, working from home after being briefly hospitalized with painful kidney stones.
Bush has always said the Presidency is about doing big things, and a friend who chatted with him one evening in July said he seemed to be craving a fresh mission even though the one he has pursued in Iraq is far from being on a steady footing. “He was looking for the next really important thing to do,” the friend said. “You could hear him almost sorting it out to himself. He just sort of figured it would come.”
But when it did, he did not immediately show that he sensed its magnitude. On the Monday that Hurricane Katrina landed and the Crescent City began drowning, Bush was joshing with Senator John McCain on the tarmac of an Air Force base in Arizona, posing with a melting birthday cake. Like a scene out of a Michael Moore mockumentary, he was heading into a long-planned Medicare round table at a local country club, joking that he had “spiced up” his entourage by bringing the First Lady, then noting to the audience that he had phoned Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff from Air Force One. “I said, ‘Are you working with the Governor?'” Bush recounted. “He said, ‘You bet we are.'” But the President was not talking about the killer storm. He was talking about immigration, and the Governor was Arizona’s.
Amid a slew of stories this weekend about the embattled presidency and the blundering government response to the drowning of New Orleans, some journalists who are long-time observers of the White House are suddenly sharing scathing observations about President Bush that may be new to many of their readers.
Is Bush the commanding, decisive, jovial president you’ve been hearing about for years in so much of the mainstream press?
Maybe not so much.
Judging from the blistering analyses in Time, Newsweek, and elsewhere these past few days, it turns out that Bush is in fact fidgety, cold and snappish in private. He yells at those who dare give him bad news and is therefore not surprisingly surrounded by an echo chamber of terrified sycophants. He is slow to comprehend concepts that don’t emerge from his gut. He is uncomprehending of the speeches that he is given to read. And oh yes, one of his most significant legacies the immense post-Sept. 11 reorganization of the federal government which created the Homeland Security Department has failed a big test.