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Bush Can Recoup From Hurricane, But Can Democrats?

President Bush has an opportunity to recover from his post-Hurricane Katrina political doldrums, but Democrats do themselves no good by trying to take political advantage of a national tragedy. [IMGCAP(1)]

There’s no question that Bush’s initial response to Katrina was late and uninspiring. Or that his administration’s emergency management showed deep and troubling flaws, especially in view of a continuing terrorist threat.

One particular worry that’s gone unmentioned so far is: If Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has functionally had to assume the role of director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who’s minding the store on terrorism?

Already wounded by high casualty rates in Iraq and exploding gasoline prices, Katrina has sent Bush’s approval ratings down to 40 percent in the latest Pew poll and 42 percent in a CBS/New York Times poll.

The record suggests, however, that Bush is often slow on the uptake in crises and then manages to recoup. He could do it again. Meanwhile, Democrats have had practically nothing constructive to say and are losing credibility by placing blame solely on the federal government.

Bush did a miserable job of attending to the terrorist threat prior to Sept. 11, 2001. His immediate performance that day was weak.

But he came roaring back to rally the country, and he boosted his fortunes in the process.

The immediate Bush response to the Indian Ocean tsunami also was tepid. But then all-out U.S.-led relief efforts became possibly one of the most important steps yet taken in the contest with Islamic extremists.

Bush now has the opportunity to respond to the nation’s worst national disaster with a relief and rebuilding effort that could restore confidence in his leadership.

There’s an opportunity, too, to change the image — partly unfair — that Bush “doesn’t care” about poor black people, those seen on television as particularly affected by the hurricane.

Swiftly seeking and getting $62 billion in relief funding is a start, although Bush has to make sure that the money is efficiently spent. It’s not a good sign that the American Red Cross could get $2,000 debit cards to homeless people in Houston days ahead of FEMA.

Bush plans to make a speech to the nation about Katrina, but he should have done so earlier, much as he did at the Washington National Cathedral just three days after 9/11. He truly bound the country to a national purpose, though, in an address to Congress on Sept. 20, 2001.

It’s going to be much harder to unite the country four years on, partly because a hurricane is not the common enemy that al Qaeda is, but mostly because partisanship now infects every aspect of public life.

Beyond words, what really counts is what kind of mechanism Bush puts in place to rebuild the Gulf Coast, particularly New Orleans. He needs to set an overall design and appoint a reconstruction administrator who inspires immediate confidence.

Congressional leaders mention former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R), former CENTCOM commander Tommy Franks or former Secretary of State Colin Powell as models for the role. It certainly wouldn’t hurt if Bush appointed an African-American to the post.

Reconstruction of the Gulf Coast is going to be the biggest public works projects in American history since construction of the federal highway system. While Katrina will depress the U.S. growth rate and raise unemployment numbers for a quarter or two, in the long run it can be a boon to both.

Bush surely will want the program to be led by the private sector, but this also is an opportunity to put in place such ideas as Opportunity Zones, places where small businesses get tax breaks to rebuild, dispossessed homeowners get low-rate loans, and schools and hospitals get federal help.

On Thursday, Senate Democrats did offer an alternative package to Bush’s latest relief plan, including extra Medicaid coverage, housing vouchers and school assistance.

But, overwhelmingly, Democrats have been nothing but critical and uncooperative. Leaders like Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Sen. Harry Reid (Nev.) have heaped all blame on the Bush administration, neglecting any mention of glaring failures by the Democrat-led governments of New Orleans and Louisiana.

Former President Bill Clinton is pitching in to help, but his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), has joined her party’s critical claque.

Besides joining in to demand the firing of FEMA Director Michael Brown and the appointment of a 9/11-style investigative commission, the 2008 Democratic frontrunner’s one distinctive proposal was to rip FEMA out of the Department of Homeland Security, a bad idea.

In the meantime, Sen. Clinton delivered a speech to the labor-backed Alliance of Retired Americans linking Katrina to Bush’s idea of an “ownership society.”

“Well, we saw what that meant in the last couple of days. You can’t expect any help from your government that you pay taxes to. You can’t expect any help unless you own a car, unless you have enough money to figure out how to get your family on an airplane to get away from impending disaster,” Clinton said.

If Bush fails to seize his opportunity to lead, Democrats may prosper politically. But, if he succeeds, all they will be remembered for is cheap shots.