Tomorrow night from Louisiana, on his fourth trip to Katrina-land, President Bush will address the nation on the great storm, the clean-up, and his “vision for the future.” The ugliest aspects of Katrina’s devastation — that the nation (which ultimately means the federal government) failed the predominantly poor and black “left behind,” those who were most vulnerable and least able to help themselves — has left a bitter taste in the national mouth.
Americans were startled and alarmed to find that the poorest segment of our society was, in the grip of nature’s indifferent rage and the immediate aftermath, little or no better off than those in similar circumstances in far-flung “third world” lands with grossly inferior “infrastructures” and “support systems” to ours. Similarly embarrassing was the ubiquitously televised and photographed exposure of the naked volume and depth of of the underclass 40 years after the War on Poverty. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “maybe now on the heels of New Orleans” we could “deal with the problem of persistent poverty.”
White House insiders say Bush’s speech will be “explanatory,” have the “feel” of an address to the nation, and “lay out a strategy” in an attempt to address these broader themes, including the “racial component of Katrina,” a “commitment to rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast,” and will “discuss plans to provide health care, education, jobs and housing assistance to flood victims,” spending up to $200 billion on the effort over the next two years.
Addressing the question, “given what happened with Katrina, shouldn’t Americans be concerned if their government isn’t prepared to respond to another disaster or even a terrorist attack,” at a White House news conference with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani yesterday, Bush came remarkably close to a mea culpa regarding dissatisfaction with the initial government response to Katrina.
“Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government. And to the extent that the federal government didn’t fully do its job right, I take responsibility. I want to know what went right and what went wrong. I want to know how to better cooperate with state and local government, to be able to answer that very question that you asked: Are we capable of dealing with a severe attack or another severe storm. And that’s a very important question. And it’s in our national interest that we find out exactly what went on and — so that we can better respond,” he said.
If the president can continue and expand upon this conciliatory tone in his speech tomorrow and honestly address the persistence of poverty in the nation — though any Bush “New Deals” will doubtless bear a “compassionate conservatism” slant — it is possible he can still redeem his second term and lend Katrina at least a semblance of a silver lining.