Politicians in Washington are often like motorists who drive only by consulting their rearview mirrors and never look out of their windshields to see what is going on right now.
Our national political/journalistic complex is obsessed with blaming President Bush for failing to respond quickly to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. After weeks of media pounding and casualty figures that were, apparently, wildly and widely exaggerated, polls suggest that the public has no choice but to agree with the critique.
The CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll of Sept. 8-11 shows that only 44 percent of Americans approve of the job Bush did immediately after the storm. But so what? The same survey shows that 58 percent approve of the work he has done since then in helping New Orleans and the Gulf Coast to recover from the effects of the disaster.
The low job approval of Bush’s efforts in the week after the storm will fade into history and take its place alongside similar criticism of his slowness to act after the planes hit on Sept. 11 or after the tsunami struck late last year. What counts for the future is that the ratings on his recent performance are 20 points higher than his overall job approval.
This positive affirmation of the president’s role in the past few weeks is the leading indicator Washington should be following. While all current polls show Bush falling three or four points in job approval to the lowest of his administration, these surveys reflect neither the increasingly positive view of the president’s disaster-relief efforts nor the bounce that he always gets when we are reminded of the horrendous attacks of Sept. 11 on its grim anniversary.
Democrats, such as Sen. Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump: Five things we know and five things we don't Trump must not pull a bait-and-switch on American workers Jewish groups divided over Hanukkah party at Trump hotel MORE (D-N.Y.), who are assuming a harsh critical role in attacking the administration are making a huge mistake. They are presenting an image of partisanship and rancor at a time when the nation wants its political leaders to spread healing balm and work together on reconstruction.
The stories of the rapidity with which the Federal Emergency Management Agency is bringing in mobile homes and building temporary housing, the bonding that seems to be happening between refugees and their new communities, the record outpouring of charitable giving — greater even than after Sept. 11 or the tsunami — all attest to the national mood. If there is one time voters will be impatient with critics and those who they feel are raking over the past to score political points, it is now.
That is not to say that voters will not demand a fair, impartial and thorough review of what went wrong in the relief efforts and of why hospital patients died awaiting evacuation. They will be particularly interested in why federal money that should have gone to strengthening the levees went to other pork-barrel projects that Louisiana’s senators wanted to be funded instead. The Sept. 11 commission model should be followed to be certain we get the whole picture.
But now Americans want us to face the need not just to recover from the storm but to deal with the underlying poverty it exposed. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put it best when she said that the storm-devastated areas should not be rebuilt the way they were when the storm hit. Rather, she said that “maybe now on the heels of New Orleans” we could “deal with the problem of persistent poverty.”
Michael Harrington, in his book The Other America, awakened our national consciousness to the “invisible poor” who live in our cities. Katrina has blown away the veil that kept them from sight and put their plight on all of our television screens. So now we have an opportunity and an obligation to remedy it.
In this task of relief, recovery and reconstruction, Bush has a job that will occupy most of his second term and will lend it a theme and a grandeur that Sept. 11 imparted to his first four years in office.
Bush is a conservative who doesn’t believe government should do a lot. But two things he does think it should do are protect us against foreign foes and shelter us from the forces of nature. And now he has both on his plate.
Morris is the author of Rewriting History, a rebuttal of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) memoir, Living History.