We checked in with the White House Web site this morning for the president's latest comments on Hurricane Katrina, and this is what we saw instead: The four top stories -- which is to say, four of the top five -- were commemorations of the attacks of 9/11. The president proclaims a day of prayer and remembrance for 9/11, the president declares the anniversary of 9/11 "Patriot Day," the president remembers 9/11 in his weekly radio address, and the president honors the heroes of 9/11 at a Medal of Valor award ceremony.
We remember 9/11, too, but we remember a lot that has happened since then as well. We remember a war in Afghanistan that hasn't been wrapped up quite as nicely as you might think. We remember that Osama bin Laden is still a free man. We remember a war in Iraq, a war that was started on false premises and then prosecuted so badly that even the president's supporters will say so. And we remember a natural disaster for which our government was deeply, deeply unprepared.
This is not how Bush and his White House had things planned. In the world the president imagined when he was sworn in for a second term in January -- was it really just nine months ago? -- he'd have signed off on Social Security privatization and a repeal of the estate tax by now, and Iraqis would be moving toward an election based on a constitution adopted through a process of consensus. If a Supreme Court justice had resigned or died in the meantime -- both of which seemed entirely likely in January -- the nation would be transfixed by confirmation hearings in August or September.
It hasn't happened that way, of course. Social Security reform is basically dead. The estate tax repeal has been tabled for now. There's no consensus on an Iraqi constitution, and 15 U.S. troops have already died in the country this month. And while Bush has been at the receiving end of two Supreme Court vacancies, his nomination of a replacement -- first for Sandra Day O'Connor, then for William Rehnquist -- hasn't exactly captured the imagination of the American public. Confirmation hearings for John G. Roberts begin today in Washington, but it's hard to think that many Americans will be watching.
What they're watching instead is the slow recovery from Katrina -- and the continuing unraveling of the Bush presidency. The president's overall approval rating is 42 percent in a new Time poll, the lowest since he took office. But it's not clear whether Bush sees what's happening around him. Time warns of the president's "increasing isolation," life in a "bubble" that his aides says "has grown more hermetic in the second term with fewer people willing or able to bring him bad news -- or tell him when he's wrong." One White House aide tells of taking so much abuse when he had to confront the president on something once that he ended up with dry heaves afterward.
So maybe the president wasn't "tone-deaf," as we've said before, in his first responses to Katrina. Maybe he has created an environment in which the only tones that are played for him are the ones he wants to hear. And maybe the White House is trying the same tactic with all of us now. Remember 9/11. Remember 9/11. Remember 9/11. The war in Iraq? It's about 9/11. Hurricane Katrina? It's just like 9/11. That song has played pretty well for four years now, and the White House apparently thinks it will play well enough for another three and a half.
Is anyone still listening?