A Storm-Tossed Boss

In September 1965, a massive hurricane hit New Orleans. By the next day the president--a Texan in a time of war--was in the city, visiting a shelter. With no electricity in the darkness there, Lyndon Baines Johnson held a flashlight to his face and proclaimed, "This is the president of the United States and I'm here to help you!" Almost precisely 40 years later, when another horrific hurricane hit the city, the president was, again, a Texan in wartime. But rather than hurry to New Orleans from his Texas ranch, George W. Bush decided, three days after Katrina hit, to fly back to Washington first. Photographers rarely are allowed into the forward cabin of Air Force One, but consigliere Karl Rove and other aides summoned them so they could snap pictures of the Boss gazing out the window as the plane flew over the devastation. Republican strategists privately call the resulting image--Bush as tourist, seemingly powerless as he peered down at the chaos--perhaps among the most damaging of his presidency.

Katrina's winds have unspun the spin of the Bush machine, particularly the crucial idea that he is a commanding commander in chief. In the NEWSWEEK Poll, only 17 percent of Americans say that he deserves the most blame for the botched early response to Katrina. But, for the first time, less than a majority--49 percent--say he has "strong leadership qualities," down from 63 percent last year. That weakness, in turn, dragged down his job-approval rating--now at 38 percent, his lowest ever--as well as voters' sense of where the country is headed. By a 66-28 margin, they say they are "dissatisfied," by far the gloomiest view in the Bush years, and among the worst in recent decades. Katrina has deepened concern about the nation's ability to respond to catastrophe--natural or man-made. "I'm unsatisfied with where we are right now," Republican Senate Leader Bill Frist told NEWSWEEK, "because I cannot be assured now that if a similar event were to happen today, that anything would be different."

Katrina seems likely to blow away much of Bush's agenda, already burdened by an expensive and increasingly unpopular construction project in Iraq. Congress already has shoveled out $62 billion in relief money alone, with several times that likely to be spent on rebuilding the Gulf Coast. Democrats declared Bush's costly Social Security-reform plan dead (again), as well as his plan to repeal the estate tax. Few Republicans disagreed. Frist didn't shut the door on a tax increase, saying, "I'm not going to rule it out nor am I going to endorse it." But he noted that Congress faces "the most expensive redevelopment project the country has ever seen. I would think, and predict, that it is going to cost money."

Rove sent press secretary Scott McClellan into the media maw to decry "the blame game," but even Frist called for a swift investigation--though not the independent commission demanded by Sen. Hillary Clinton. Backpedaling, the administration did something unusual: under fire, it more or less fired someone (hapless FEMA chief Michael Brown).

The Democrats' own public standing is low, and it's unclear how big an opportunity the storm presents. Respected handicapper Charlie Cook still sees only modest gains. But Simon Rosenberg of the New Democratic Network predicts something more. "Voters see not just a failure of execution, but of the Bush brand of conservatism," he said. The alternative? Senator Clinton offered one, informally launching her 2008 run by touting the last president's record on disaster relief. She wasn't proposing another Johnsonian Great Society, but, at least for Democrats, she was offering a flashlight in the dark.