At a press conference in April 2004, George W. Bush was asked four times whether he had made any mistakes in his presidency. Amid questions about that Aug. 6, 2001, presidential daily briefing, amid a stagnant economy and what would soon become the deadliest month to do date in Iraq, the president dodged, then dodged, then dodged again before saying: "You know, I just -- I'm sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hadn't yet."
Seventeen months later, it finally has -- sort of. In his East Room appearance with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani Tuesday, Bush said: "Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government. And to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility."
It was a conditional acceptance of responsibility. Bush isn't saying -- and he hasn't really said -- that the federal government didn't do its job right in the aftermath of Katrina. But if it didn't, he'll take responsibility. And even that conditional acknowledgment was itself a dodge. The president wasn't asked Tuesday if he accepted responsibility for the federal government's failings in the aftermath of Katrina. He was asked: "Mr. President, given what happened with Katrina, shouldn't Americans be concerned if their government isn't prepared to respond to another disaster or even a terrorist attack?" That's a direct and rather frightening question, and the president seemed to say that he wasn't able to answer it. "I want to know what went right and what went wrong," he said. "I want to know how to better cooperate with state and local government, to be able to answer that very question that you asked: Are we capable of dealing with a severe attack or another severe storm. And that's a very important question. And it's in our national interest that we find out exactly what went on and -- so that we can better respond."
So maybe Bush took responsibility, more or less, for the government's failings in the aftermath of Katrina because, all things considered, it was better than admitting that his administration isn't ready to respond to a terrorist attack. Or maybe he took responsibility because it's easier to admit mistakes, kind of, in a storm that is behind us than in a war in which people continue to die every day. But is there something more?
As the New York Times notes today, Bush "has resisted publicly acknowledging mistakes or shortcomings" while in office. We don't recall him doing much of either during his first four years, and the president treated his 51-48 win in November -- an "accountability moment," he called it -- as a sort of absolution for any sins that may have come before. But Bush was weak before Katrina struck, and the government's response to the storm has left him weaker still. If his approval ratings aren't in free fall now, it's only because they can't drop a whole lot further. The president and his people have to find a way to stop the bleeding and get back into the game. Tuesday's conditional acceptance of responsibility, coming quickly after the resignation of FEMA Director Michael Brown, may have been the first half of that equation. The second half is coming.
On Thursday morning, Bush will speak at Washington's National Cathedral, the scene of one of his post-9/11 triumphs. Later in the day, he'll make his fourth trip to the Gulf Coast, and he'll deliver his first big speech on Katrina from there. The Washington Post says Karl Rove is working on big ideas to move Bush out of the storm. The White House suspended wage supports for construction workers in the damaged areas last week, and the Post says it's working now to suspend them for service workers, too. Republicans are hoping Bush uses his speech -- and the Katrina recovery effort more generally -- to push for movement on GOP initiatives like school vouchers and tax incentives for businesses.
Thursday's speech could be a time for reflecting on what went wrong, for beginning the process of getting it right next time. It could be, but it probably won't be. The president has said he's sorry, sort of, and now it's time to move on. After all, he's got "a life to live."