Hurricane Katrina forced President George W. Bush to do what Cindy Sheehan, the anti-war mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, could not. Four days into the worst natural disaster to hit the US, the President cancelled his month-long vacation and returned to Washington.
August has not been kind to George W. Bush. The situation in Iraq has worsened. While three months ago, Vice President Dick Cheney confidently pronounced the insurgency to be in its "death throes," August's US military casualty toll was one of the war's highest. And despite White House spin, efforts to achieve a consensus Iraqi constitution have not fared well either. The final document instead of calming the insurgency may end up fueling its anger.
All of this might have been manageable for the White House had it not been for Cindy Sheehan. Her vigil outside the President's Crawford, TX retreat focused national attention on Iraq, at a time when the Administration might have tried to change the subject. The symbol of Sheehan's protest was simple and powerful. She was an angry and grieving mother who was protesting, she said, because her son had died in a war based on lies. So she was in Crawford demanding that the President meet with her and explain why her son lost his life.
A number of factors helped catapult Sheehan's protest into the national spotlight. First, there has been a growing sense of unease about the war. Public support for both the war and the Presidential leadership in the effort have dropped to all time lows. This public dissatisfaction, however, found no national public expression, in large part, because of the absence of political leadership. Sheehan, though not a political leader, provided the spark that ignited this latent anti-war sentiment.
Taking her protest to Crawford turned out to be an act of genius. When the President travels, the White House press corps travels with him. There in Crawford, weary and bored, the press found in Sheehan a story to write. And write they did. After days of a media frenzy, Sheehan's protest became a national movement provoking debate and renewed focus on the war.
After weeks of avoiding both Sheehan and Iraq, Bush finally sprang into action in the third week of August. He left Crawford to speak before a number of friendly audiences (mostly made up of veterans and military groups), in an effort to make his case for the war and rebuff his critics. The arguments Bush used in these speeches were much the same as those used in his earlier efforts to win support: the war must continue because if we fail, those who died will have died in vain; this war is an extension of the war on terror that began on 9-11; and because this war presents America with a challenge not unlike the struggle against Nazi Germany, it requires the same resolve until victory.
While fortifying his base, none of those arguments have helped win over Americans displeased with the President's war effort, evidenced by recent polling which shows only 35% approving of Bush's handling of the war in Iraq and a majority feeling that the entire effort wasn't worth it. By now, skepticism has hardened and the nation is deeply divided.
Then came Katrina.
When disaster first hit the Gulf Coast, most Americans did not comprehend the magnitude of the tragedy that was about to unfold. This after all it is hurricane season and each year a number of these terrible storms hit the US mainland, that take their toll and then pass on, giving way to clean-up and rebuilding efforts.
But Katrina was different in both impact and duration. Nightly the news plays out scenes of suffering and devastation in gruesome and horrifying detail. Thousands may have died and New Orleans' poor are trapped, desperate, angry and dying, with no power, no services, no food or water and no security.
Serious questions are being asked about the failures of the federal and state governments' preparedness and planning. Why was there no contingency plan? Why was the federal government's security and relief effort so slow? And were race and class factors? Did the Administration's decisions both to cut the budget for flood control projects and to send one-third of the state's national guard forces to Iraq make Louisiana more vulnerable?
All of this, of course, has presented an already beleaguered President not only with a new set of challenges, but a new opportunity to show leadership.
Bush's initial response was both slow and, as deemed by many, inadequate. As the storm was brewing in the Gulf, the President appeared to be focused on other matters. Even after Katrina first hit the mainland, he was the addressing the war. And even as the magnitude of the disaster became clear, he delayed returning to Washington in order to give one more speech in defense of the war. Only then, did the President end his vacation and return to the White House to organize his cabinet to provide a national response to the tragedy.
On Friday, five days after Katrina hit, Bush visited the affected areas. By now, the federal response effort appears to be in full swing. The monumental challenges that this crisis will continue to pose for the US will shape its agenda and define the President's leadership in the months and years to come. For now, Katrina has removed Iraq from the headlines. It will in coming weeks most probably eclipse coverage of the Senate hearings on President Bush's Supreme Court nominee, scheduled to begin this week. Katrina may also force the Pentagon to rethink its controversial 9-11 Freedom Walk mobilization in Washington, DC.
This may be the low point in his presidency, and his gravest challenge since 9-11. But even with the slow start and the disturbing questions that must still be answered, this challenge presents the White House with an opportunity to lead a nation in great need of healing. And then, if and when this crisis is under control, Iraq will still be there demanding attention, and Cindy Sheehan will still want her questions answered.
His total disregard for the poor people is not surprising. He has known that this would happen to New Orleans if a major hurricane hit there. There have been reports to validate this and he has continued to cut spending to alleviate the problem. He simply doesn't care. He has showed us this in more ways than one.