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September 15, 2005
Bush Speech: Better Late Than Never

I missed the live broadcast of George Bush's speech on Hurricane Katrina this evening from New Orleans, attending a board meeting of a local non-profit and having dinner with good friends. When I came home, I went right to the computer and watched it with the First Mate via stream on CNN before I read any other commentary, and while I heard it late, I welcomed the tone and the messages.

In fact, I view his speech in exactly the same way. Bush did a marvelous job of touching on the despair, the heroism, the personal stories that touch hearts and motivate us to greater efforts, as well as the policy decisions that will spring from Katrina's aftermath. Unfortunately, this speech came about a week late. He may well undo the political damage done by the massive confusion of the first few days in the weeks and months ahead if he can quickly start rebuilding and returning people to their neighborhoods, but Bush missed an opportunity to not only demonstrate leadership but to instill a sense of confidence by getting out in front of the cameras like this last week or by the weekend at the latest.

I don't mean to advocate the ubiquitous "I feel your pain" response of the Clinton administration to every wounded soul and offended group in America. Eight years of that weepiness gave us our fill of empty and saccharine rhetoric. However, this unprecedented devastation called for our national leader to get on the ground early and show us his involvement. There are times for modesty, but on occasion a leader has to show a muscular and personal presence -- and Bush should have instinctually known that this was one of those times.

Intellectually, we knew that Bush had followed the efforts very closely and tried to manage problems from Washington, but that presented two significant problems for Bush. First, the nation didn't see him performing those tasks, and in a time of national crisis -- which the White House clearly did not immediately understand this to be -- Bush turned into a technocrat when we needed him with a bullhorn, lifting our spirits. People respond to leaders who roll up their sleeves and get involved, even if just to bring smiles to the faces of the nameless heroes and victims of the tragedy. The tone-deaf response of the flyover did some political damage, and it should have never happened.

Second, it turns out that Bush and the team in Washington didn't get good data from their team on the ground. They may have made their decisions based on good faith in the information and their sources, but even within FEMA and the other agencies involved, the confusion that snarled efforts after the levees broke clearly reached all the way to DC. Bush himself acknowledged that in tonight's speech by asking for new legislation allowing for federal intervention in disasters of this scope:

The storm involved a massive flood, a major supply and security operation, and an evacuation order affecting more than a million people. It was not a normal hurricane -- and the normal disaster relief system was not equal to it. ... Yet the system, at every level of government, was not well-coordinated, and was overwhelmed in the first few days. It is now clear that a challenge on this scale requires greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces -- the institution of our government most capable of massive logistical operations on a moment's notice.

Four years after the frightening experience of September the 11th, Americans have every right to expect a more effective response in a time of emergency. When the federal government fails to meet such an obligation, I, as President, am responsible for the problem, and for the solution.

However, he did finally give his speech, and I think delivering it from New Orleans itself sends a powerful message. Despite the not unreasonable misgivings of many, Bush passionately committed himself and the nation to rebuilding the city, "higher and better". Part of doing it better in Bush's vision is to rethink the economics of the area, and the new economic model will eventually vindicate Bush.

Many have noticed the poverty of New Orleans as one of the factors in the ability to quickly evacuate the area. He proposed to make the entire Katrina disaster area a Gulf Opportunity Zone, using economic and tax incentives to draw businesses (especially, one presumes, manufacturing) to the area. Bush also wants Congress to fund business loans for small-business start-ups and do-overs in order to quickly reconstitute a solid middle-class for the economic restoration of the area. That will create jobs, which combined with smart use of funds for mortgages and building, can transform the region into a model for Bush's ownership society. In a relatively short period of time, the government may start recouping its investment through better tax revenues and an economically healthier and more diverse New Orleans and Gulf Coast region.

Call it the No City Left Behind strategy, if you will.

Bush delivered another brilliant and overdue message in asking for everyone in this nation to contribute and sacrifice for this effort. Everyone, he reminded us, can play a part in the resurrection of the Katrina area; all we need to do is ask, and our talents will find a way to apply. He called all of us to enlist in "this great national enterprise," a call that didn't clearly ring out from 9/11. Then, the Bush administration wanted to help us return to a sense of normalcy, an understandable but shortsighted impulse. Now he asks us to share a sense of mission, an impulse that resonates with Americans and our history, both good and bad, over the two centuries of our existence.

The hour has gotten a bit late, but I welcome the opportunity to engage in a positive manner in this enterprise. The President waited a few days too long to engage the public, but in the end, his efforts will overcome the initial stumbles. This speech puts him well on his way.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at September 15, 2005 10:45 PM

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