Thursday, September 15, 2005

3 Crises Define Bush Presidency
3 Crises Define Bush Presidency

AP Political Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- It's August in Crawford, Texas, and President Bush is on vacation. His poll ratings are slumping. He hears warnings of a looming crisis that will soon change the course of his presidency.

Is this August 2001? Or August 2005?

The answer is both. Historians will ultimately judge Bush's presidency based on his leadership through two tragedies - the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and Hurricane Katrina, plus a conflict of his own design: The war in Iraq.

Katrina's lethal aftermath revealed that the Bush administration didn't learn valuable lessons from the 2001 attacks about responding to disasters. As for the president himself, since the Sept. 11 terror strikes, Bush seems to have lost his touch for connecting with an anxious public.

"This is someone who has staked his presidency on strong leadership through crises, and now he has faced three major challenges," said Charles Franklin, a University of Wisconsin political science professor. "Sept. 11 fundamentally altered what this administration is going to be remembered for, which is the response to terrorism, the Iraq war and now obviously Katrina and the aftermath."

The Iraq war is linked to both Sept. 11 and Katrina, a bridge of sorts between the two crises. It began as part of the Sept. 11-inspired war on terrorism - and is now a competitor with the Gulf Coast for money, manpower and public support.

Back in August 2001, Bush was seven months into his presidency and trying to figure out why his job approval rating had declined by up to 10 percentage points since his inauguration. Voters still didn't know much about Bush, and were getting restless.

On Aug. 6, he was given a secret document warning that al-Qaida hoped to attack the United States with hijacked airplanes. Delivered to his Texas ranch, the memo referred to evidence of terrorists possibly casing buildings in New York.

Critics now accuse Bush of not making terrorism a priority before Sept. 11. Supporters say he could not have prevented the attacks.

Either way, Bush's initial response to the strikes was shaky, capped by a grim-faced address to the nation that night.

He quickly gained his footing and won favor with Americans when he stood atop a charred fire truck in New York and vowed vengeance.

That bullhorn-waving event occurred four years ago Wednesday.

Bush could use a defining moment like that now. Katrina caught him flatflooted in Texas, though forecasters saw it coming for days. He seemed slow at the levers of power and took more than two weeks to acknowledge his own responsibility for the government's sluggish response.

Then came this stunning concession from Bush: Four years after Sept. 11, Katrina makes him wonder whether the country is ready for the next terrorist strike.

"Are we capable of dealing with a severe attack? That's a very important question and it's in the national interest that we find out what went on so we can better respond," he said.

Several Sept. 11 commission members said it looks like little has changed in federal disaster planning since the attacks on New York and the Pentagon. A Senate Republican, Susan Collins of Maine, said the Katrina response was plagued by confusion, communications failures and widespread lack of coordination - all of which should have been addressed by expensive post-Sept. 11 reforms.

This could be Bush's legacy. According to various independent polls:

-Two-thirds of the public think he could have done more to help Katrina's victims. More than half say he deserves blame for the slow response.

-Fewer than half say Bush has strong leadership qualities, down from 63 percent in October 2004.

-More than half say they don't trust Bush's judgment in a crisis.

And then there's Iraq.

Amid recent progress in the Gulf Coast and Bush's planning for a prime-time address on Katrina, the public's attention was shifted back to Baghdad on Wednesday. More than a dozen explosions ripped through Iraq's capital, causing hundreds of casualties.

The Iraq war did not instantly transform the country as did Sept. 11. It can't match Katrina's ability to deliver a bone-jarring emotional punch. But the war is a gathering political force, its fate linked to the two disasters.

As the death toll rises in New Orleans and Baghdad, more Americans may question Iraq's role in the war on terror.

Six in 10 are telling pollsters the U.S. should cut back spending on Iraq to help pay for relief and recovery from Katrina. Almost that many favor a partial withdrawal of troops from Iraq to help with storm damage.

Bush's challenge is to convince Americans that the war on terror, the war in Iraq and the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast can be tackled together. "I can do more than one thing at one time," he said defensively Tuesday.

His case is tougher now that growing numbers of people are wondering whether he can lead the nation in crisis. The last time that was an issue was August 2001.


EDITOR'S NOTE - Ron Fournier has covered politics for The Associated Press since 1993.