The members of the world's most exclusive club gathered in the Oval Office in a state of disbelief. Between them, they could draw on decades of experience of hurricanes and floods, at home and overseas, yet Nos. 41 and 42 could only shake their heads at the severity of Katrina's destruction. "Isn't it unbelievable," former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton said to the man who now sits in the black leather chair.
Unbelievable, but not unexpected. No. 43 thought he'd gotten ahead of Katrina by declaring major disaster areas--and readying emergency supplies--before the winds roared in. But after a month of antiwar protesters at his ranch and squabbling Iraqi politicians in Baghdad, President George W. Bush seemed politically unprepared for his biggest domestic crisis since 2001. Bush, who loves to manage Iraq with metrics and outputs, spent two days reeling off statistics about trucks en route to the Gulf before expressing his frustration at the lack of progress. "I am satisfied with the response," he said of the government's emergency operations. "I'm not satisfied with all the results."
The political storm may only worsen for the White House. For most of this year Bush's advisers have blamed the president's sliding poll numbers not on the war in Iraq but on high gas prices at home. Those prices spiked after Katrina, topping $3 a gallon in many neighborhoods, as the national average rose to $2.68--a 44 percent hike since last year. And there are signs that Bush's political capital is getting soggy. Former GOP House speaker Newt Gingrich sharply questioned the last four years of emergency planning. John Breaux, the former Democratic Louisiana senator and close Bush ally, rejected the president's claim that nobody anticipated the failure of the city's levees, saying he talked to Bush about it last year.
Bush partisans went on the offensive. Grover Norquist, the conservative activist with close ties to Karl Rove, blamed the chaos on "looting in a Democratic city run by a Democratic mayor and a Democratic governor." Still, nobody accused Bush of an overly rapid response. It took two days for Bush to fly over the disaster zone in Air Force One, and four days for him to touch down. In contrast, 41 toured Florida hours after Hurricane Andrew passed through in 1992; two days later he returned, while the rain was still torrential. (Bush 43's aides claimed that an earlier visit would have distracted local officials.) President Bush is at least lucky that his re-election is behind him; what lies ahead is far harder to forecast.