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In Katrina’s Aftermath, Bush Confronts Problems at Home

In Katrina’s Aftermath, Bush
Confronts Problems at Home

By Richard W. Stevenson


George W. Bush, whose standing for the last four years has rested primarily on issues of war and peace, introduced himself to the nation on Thursday night in an unfamiliar and somewhat uncomfortable new role: domestic president.

The violence of Hurricane Katrina and his faltering response to it have left to Bush not just the task of physically rebuilding a swath of the United States, but also of addressing issues like poverty and racial inequality that were exposed so rawly by the storm. The challenge would be immense for any president, but is especially so for Bush. He is scrambling to assure a shaken, angry nation that he is not only up to the task but that he understands how much it disturbed Americans to see their fellow citizens suffering and their government responding so ineffectually.

So for nearly 30 minutes, he stood in a largely lifeless New Orleans and sought to show that he appreciates the suffering, and to recast his presidency in response to one of the nation’s most devastating disasters. He spoke of housing and health care and job training. He reached with rhetorical confidence for the uplifting theme that out of tragedy can emerge a better society, and he groped for what he lost in the wind and water more than two weeks ago, his well-cultivated image as a strong leader.

It was not the president’s most stirring speech, but it conveyed a sense of command far more than his off-key efforts in the days immediately after the storm, when Bush often appeared more interested in bucking up government officials than in addressing the dire situation confronting hundreds of thousands of displaced, desperate and scared people.

To those in need of immediate help and to those confronting lives that will remain upended for weeks or months or longer, he offered an expansive government safety net of specific programs, from paying the costs of reuniting families to a commitment to moving everyone out of shelters into housing by mid-October.

Doing so marked a distinct shift for a president whose perceived hostility or indifference to government’s role in social welfare, manifested in budgets that have routinely sought to cut such programs or rein them in, has long been a flash point in his relationship with poor and minority voters.

But if this was big government, it was at least in part on his ideological terms: Federal reimbursement to allow displaced students to attend private and parochial schools, tax-free business zones, a call for charitable and religious organizations to continue with relief work. Having no choice but to open the fiscal floodgates, he sought to reassure nervous conservatives that he would guard against fraud and waste.

And when it came to the issues hardest to address and most in need of sustained commitment, new ideas and risk-taking leadership — the gap between rich and poor, its causes and consequences, its racial components — he was less effective.

“We have a duty to confront his poverty with bold action,” he said.

Yet he spoke of “deep, persistent poverty” as something the nation had seen on television rather than as a condition that many of its citizens had lived in for generations. He defined the problem as regional rather than national, and offered only regional rather than national solutions.