The first real sign may have come Tuesday afternoon, when CNN's Jack Cafferty, in the middle of a somber exegesis on the devastation in New Orleans, interrupted himself to ask: "Where's President Bush? Is he still on vacation?" Wolf Blitzer said the president was preparing to head back to Washington early. "Oh, that would be a good idea," Cafferty said, his voice dripping with a condescending sort of sarcasm. "Based on his approval rating, based on the latest polls, my guess is getting back to work might not be a terrible idea."
It may have taken a hurricane to do it, but the press seems to have been blown into some kind of tipping point with George W. Bush. Bloggers have been mocking Bush all week for his slow, "Pet Goat"-like response to Hurricane Katrina -- it's hard to open a Web browser without seeing a picture of Bush smiling over a birthday cake or pretending to play a guitar while residents of New Orleans were fighting for their lives -- and now the mainstream media is getting in on the act.
On Wednesday, the New Hampshire Union Leader, which endorsed Bush in his run for reelection based largely on his response to 9/11, laid into the president hard for responding so slowly to Katrina. "A better leader would have flown straight to the disaster zone and announced the immediate mobilization of every available resource to rescue the stranded, find and bury the dead, and keep the survivors fed, clothed, sheltered and free of disease," the paper said. "The cool, confident, intuitive leadership Bush exhibited in his first term, particularly in the months immediately following Sept. 11, 2001, has vanished. In its place is a diffident detachment unsuitable for the leader of a nation facing war, natural disaster and economic uncertainty."
As Bush began to make his way back to Washington, Newsweek's Howard Fineman laid out the dismal political landscape that would be waiting for him on arrival. "His poll numbers already at near-record low levels, he will have to oversee the rescue of the Gulf in the midst of a changing climate in Washington," Fineman said. "The public's sense of where America is headed -- the 'right direction/wrong track' numbers -- are dismal. Gas prices are high and unsettling. Congressional Democrats, reluctant since 9/11 to take on a 'war president,' finally have decided to do so. And Republicans, knowing that they'll be facing the voters a year from now, are beginning to seek ways to distance themselves from him."
Did Bush turn things around with the speech he gave when he finally arrived back in Washington Wednesday afternoon? Hardly. In words that were blunt to the point of brutal, editorial writers at the New York Times called Bush's Rose Garden performance "one of the worst speeches of his life." "In what seems to be a ritual in this administration, the president appeared a day later than he was needed. He then read an address of a quality more appropriate for an Arbor Day celebration: a long laundry list of pounds of ice, generators and blankets delivered to the stricken Gulf Coast. He advised the public that anybody who wanted to help should send cash, grinned, and promised that everything would work out in the end." The Times said that Bush came off as "casual to the point of carelessness," and that "nothing about the president's demeanor" suggested that he "understood the depth of the current crisis."
Over at the Washington Post, the editorial writers are cautioning against assigning blame for a natural disaster. But in the process, they're doing something that looks an awful lot like it. "This administration has consistently played down the possibility of environmental disaster, in Louisiana and everywhere else," the Post says. "The president's most recent budgets have actually proposed reducing funding for flood prevention in the New Orleans area, and the administration has long ignored Louisiana politicians' requests for more help in protecting their fragile coast, the destruction of which meant there was little to slow down the hurricane before it hit the city. It is inappropriate to 'blame' anyone for a natural disaster. But given how frequently the impact of this one was predicted, and given the scale of the economic and human catastrophe that has resulted, it is certainly fair to ask questions about disaster preparations."