Government collapses, Americans come through
Katrina's winds exposed the holes in the second-term Bush administration.
It is hard to see how US President George W Bush will recover from his disastrous handling of relief efforts after hurricane Katrina.
Bush has long been caricatured as aloof and arrogant, and this has been the familiar refrain of opponents throughout his presidency. But until now it is a criticism that he has managed to dismiss. When it has really mattered – at times of crisis, such as in the aftermath of 9/11 – Bush has proved to be defiantly popular. Journalists and Democrats might not like the president’s folksy resoluteness but it goes down well with many American voters.
After the disaster of hurricane Katrina the president’s approval ratings have sunk to an all-time low (1). There has been no sign of resolute leadership, folksy or otherwise. While the world was gripped by media reports of New Orleans descending into a hellhole, Bush seemed to be blithely unaware of the unfolding mess. His initial response to the crisis was to ignore it. After the storm broke he continued with his scheduled trip to Arizona and California to promote his Medicare drug prescription plan, and then returned to his Texas ranch to complete his five-week vacation.
Even when Bush did finally curtail his vacation and address the issue, he seemed oblivious to reports of rising chaos. His eventual trip over the floods in Air Force One made him appear more like a voyeuristic tourist than a presidential leader. When he did comment on the catastrophe his praise of the (soon to be ex-) chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Michael Brown for doing one ‘heck of a job’ was particularly unfortunate – his comment came just as the media relayed shocking stories of FEMA’s incompetence. Revamped by Bush in the wake of 9/11, this frontline agency was revealed to be shrouded in bureaucracy and totally inept.
It took a full two days for FEMA to declare the destruction in the region to be ‘an incident of national significance’. Brown seemed to know less about the crisis than the average US citizen – he was surprised to learn that thousands of individuals were trapped in the flood zone, despite their continuous appearance on TV newscasts. FEMA rebuffed offers of help from outside agencies. Local parish leaders struggling to get relief efforts moving asked the world’s media why, if a bunch of journalists could rent RVs and descend upon the region, couldn’t a few FEMA officials make the trip?
Bush has recently tried to recover his standing. FEMA chief Brown resigned and in the past week the president has addressed the nation in his more familiar style. He pledged more money and federal assistance to the victims of the disaster – and, in an effort to create a more caring image, has dispatched himself, his wife and senior cabinet members to hands-on encounters with evacuees and relief workers.
But it is unlikely that Bush will really recover from this point in his presidency. His difficulty is not simply that he failed to respond to events in a timely and effective manner. Rather, what hurricane Katrina has exposed is the fact that the second-term president is in a deep political slump.
Long before Katrina, it was clear that the second Bush administration was lacking a sense of direction and purpose. Back in November 2004 we heard dire warnings from Democrats about Bush’s radical agenda for a second term. We were told that Bush was going to change the cultural face of America – women’s reproductive rights, stem-cell research and gay rights would all be undermined. But nearly one year into the presidency none of this legislative agenda is in evidence.
Rather, the Bush administration has spent the past 10 months in a state of uncertainty and indecision. Despite Republican majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives, Bush has dithered about what issues to prioritise and which buttons to push. In the absence of a clear legislative agenda, Bush and his conservative Congress have fallen back on yet another round of tax cuts and welfare reforms. Even the president’s much-heralded plans for social security reform have been put on a backburner.
The devastation in Louisiana and Mississippi merely exposed the hollowness of Bush’s political agenda. For example, the conservatives never had a really compelling case for tax cuts, but it was a policy they clung to in the absence of anything else. Now, with over $60billion pledged already by Congress for relief efforts and billions more needed, it is hard to see how even the staunchest neo-con could convincingly make the case for tax cuts. In fact, Senate Republican leader Bill Frist would not rule out the possibility of a tax increase in a recent interview. The best he could do was to hedge his bets, stating: ‘I’m not going to rule it [a tax rise] out nor am I going to endorse it.’ (2)
However, those claiming that the opposition might benefit from Katrina, with an emboldened Hillary Clinton perhaps using the aftermath finally to put paid to the Bushies, are deluding themselves. Polls not only show persistently low ratings for the president, they also show that Democrats have gained nothing from Bush’s failure. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that when Democrats tried to gain leverage by fanning criticism of the president’s handling of events, it won little favour with voters. Pollsters found that ‘six in 10 said that Democrats critical of Bush for his handling of the hurricane were just trying to use the disaster for political advantage’ (3).
The failure of government at the local, state and national level has served only to reinforce Americans’ cynical attitude towards politicians of all stripes. The net effect of all this is curious. On one level, a profound sense of disinterest and distrust hangs over public life in the wake of Katrina. People feel let down by the failure of all levels of officialdom to respond. But again, Katrina didn’t cause the problem: it merely confirmed existing low expectations for public institutions.
On the other hand, the hurricane has unleashed an outpouring of sympathy, compassion and action among ordinary Americans that is, at times, quite inspiring. On a recent trip to Europe I found that the European caricature of Americans as greedy, selfish, philistines was alive and well. But on this side of the pond, the sheer scale of private organisations and individuals that have stepped up to lend a hand is a better indication of the spirit of ordinary Americans.
Americans expect so little from officialdom that they are quite prepared just to knuckle down and help one another out. This applies even in everyday matters. For example, American maternity benefits are notoriously poor and perks like visiting midwives are unheard of, but most new mothers can expect a troop of friends lining up at their door with cooked meals and other assistance when her new baby arrives. The same approach can be seen on a much grander scale after this disaster.
We are now hearing reports of parishes near New Orleans that got on with the task of clearing up their own mess, using local farming equipment and construction trucks, immediately after the storm subsided. Many had little or no contact with anyone outside their towns before the worst of the initial mess was cleared.
National philanthropy organisations report a record pace of giving for Katrina disaster relief (4). Almost every school in the nation has launched some kind of fund-raising effort (that is one hell of a lot of bake sales and lemonade stands). Some people have quit their jobs or taken unpaid leave to collect resources, man shelters, distribute supplies or aid reconstruction efforts. Others have opened up their homes, not only to distant relatives but also to complete strangers, in an effort to provide shelter for the evacuees. Over 80 per cent of all evacuees are now staying as guests in family homes.
Hurricane Katrina has undoubtedly caused a lot of Americans to give up on Bush, and indeed all politicians – but Americans themselves have not given up.
spiked-issue: After Katrina
(1) Bush Approval Rating at All-Time Low, Washington Post, 12 September 2005
(2) A Storm-Tossed Boss, Newsweek, 19 September 2005
(3) Bush Approval Rating at All-Time Low, Washington Post, 12 September 2005
(4) Donations to Hurricane-Relief Groups Top $762-Million, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, 12 September 2005
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