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Three crises mark Bush's presidency


George Bush’s presidency will be defined by his responses to three crises.

His positive image after Sept. 11 was forged in the crucible of that crisis. It stood him in strong stead through three years and a reelection campaign. Those positive perceptions are now being undone by the ongoing disaster in Iraq and the disaster on the Gulf Coast.


George Bush’s presidency will be defined by his responses to three crises.

His positive image after Sept. 11 was forged in the crucible of that crisis. It stood him in strong stead through three years and a reelection campaign. Those positive perceptions are now being undone by the ongoing disaster in Iraq and the disaster on the Gulf Coast.

Crises matter for many reasons. First, people pay attention. Most of the time, even a president goes about his business with precious little focus from the public. But at times of crisis the whole nation is watching. Second, people actually need or want something from their president — reassurance, action, hope, help, something. Finally, the very emotionalism of a crisis opens people to the possibility of forming new and enduring judgments.

This time, with no external enemy, Americans saw a president who was weak and ineffectual, detached and unconcerned.

Weakness is manifest in his failure to act and in his refusal to take responsibility. While the White House strategy now seeks to shift the blame to local officials, it is those local officials who have been sounding the alarm for years. Sen. Mary LandrieuMary Landrieu oil is changing the world and Washington Ex-Sen. Kay Hagan joins lobby firm Republican announces bid for Vitter’s seat MORE (D-La.) has been a lonely prophetess, long arguing that the destruction of Louisiana’s wetlands would leave the region vulnerable to deadly hurricane-related floods.

Local preparedness officials such as Al Naomi told the administration that unless swift action was taken and money allocated dire consequences would result. “The longer we wait without funding,” he said in February 2004, “the more we sink. I’ve got at least six levee-construction contracts that need to be done to raise the levee protection back to where it should be.”

But this president’s priorities were not the priorities of the public in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The administration decided to deny the pleas of local officials, citing the need for tax cuts and funding for Iraq.

History clearly demonstrates the president had the wrong priorities. Bush’s failure to fund wetland restoration and levee construction has done more damage to America than Saddam’s supposed WMDs ever could. And what president would not now take back that tax cut to have rebuilt the levees and restored the wetlands?

The long-run political consequences also work against the president. To his chagrin, environmental issues will likely become much more salient. While global warming did not cause Katrina, evidence indicates it made this and other storms more devastating than they might otherwise be.

Destruction of wetlands by developers and efforts to straighten the Mississippi by transportation interests certainly contributed to the destruction. Of course, no one intended harm; environmental concerns were simply judged less important than the needs of shippers and developers. That calculus is likely to change.

The economic dislocation will have long-term ripple effects. Skyrocketing gas prices now join healthcare costs as the preeminent symbols of a squeezed middle class. A million people out of work and businesses, unable to operate, will also take an economic toll. When times are good, presidents are rewarded; when they are bad, presidents are punished, irrespective of the role they played.

On one issue, the outlook is less clear. Catastrophes past have led Americans to rally around their government as the one entity able to harness the creativity and wealth of the nation to solve problems. But government was looking pretty sorry going into this crisis, and President Bush, along with his administration, has done everything possible to give government a worse name. So we may emerge from this catastrophe without the national will to do what needs to be done. That would be a lousy legacy for any president to leave.

As we contemplate the political ramifications, remember that the human suffering remains immense and immensely more important. Each of us, along with our government, has a responsibility to do what we can to alleviate the misery.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John KerryJohn KerryWhy Obama's 'cold peace' with Iran will turn hot Pennsylvania Senate rivals use Trump, Clinton as ammunition Senate confirms Obama's long-stalled ambassador to Mexico MORE (D-Mass.) last year.