Katrina: No Rally Effect
Dan Balz notes that the public’s dividing along party lines on President Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina is in stark contrast in the national unity after 9/11.
For Bush, a Deepening Divide (WaPo, A19)
When terrorists struck on Sept. 11, 2001, Americans came together in grief and resolve, rallying behind President Bush in an extraordinary show of national unity. But when Hurricane Katrina hit last week, the opposite occurred, with Americans dividing along sharply partisan lines in their judgment of the president’s and the federal government’s response.
The starkly different verdicts on Bush’s stewardship of the two biggest crises of his presidency underscore the deepening polarization of the electorate that has occurred on his watch. This gaping divide has left the president with no reservoir of good will among his political opponents at a critical moment of national need and has touched off a fresh debate about whether he could have done anything to prevent it.
To his critics, Bush is now reaping what he has sown. Their case against him goes as follows: Facing a divided nation, the president has eschewed unity in both his governing strategy and his political blueprint. These opponents argue that he has favored confrontation over conciliation with the Democrats while favoring a set of policies aimed at deepening support among his conservative base at the expense of ideas that might produce bipartisan consensus and broader approval among the voters. His allies and advisers, while acknowledging that polarization has worsened during the past five years, say the opposition party bears the brunt of responsibility. Democrats, by this reckoning, have rebuffed Bush’s efforts at bipartisanship, put up a wall to ideas that once enjoyed some support on their side, and, even in the current crisis along the Gulf Coast, are seeking to score political points rather than joining hands with the president to speed the recovery and relief to the victims.
Wherever reality lies between these mutual recriminations, the path from post-9/11 unity to the rancor and finger-pointing in the aftermath of Katrina’s fury charts a clear deterioration in political consensus in the United States and a growing willingness to interpret events through a partisan prism. It is a problem that now appears destined to follow Bush through the final years of his presidency — a clear failure of his 2000 campaign promise to be a “uniter, not a divider.”
Friendlier analysts than Balz, including Newt Gingrich and George Will, have noted that President Bush’s primary attraction has been his decisive leadership. Whether one agrees with his policy stances, he has been firm and adament on issues he has prioritized–perhaps to a fault. Rightly or wrongly, the perception among many is that the president’s team was slow and indecisive in handling Katrina.
I would reiterate, though, that the public’s reaction to a natural disaster and a terrorist attack from abroad are naturally different. Outrage and national pride naturally followed the 9/11 attacks; they’re not something one would expect from a hurricane.
Too, while the president has missed opportunities to build consensus, it is not clear to me that he could have done so in the current climate. The bitterness that followed the 2000 election controversy only briefly abated after 9/11 but has been stoked by both professional and amateur activists on the other side. We live in the era of the Permanent Campaign, talk radio, and the Daily Kos. Absent the urgency of a foreign attack, unity is simply not an option.