The New York Times says this morning that George W. Bush's prime-time speech from New Orleans last night forced him into an "unfamiliar and somewhat uncomfortable new role" as a "domestic president." That's true to a degree -- Bush has certainly spent more time talking about 9/11 and his global war on terror than, say, early childhood education -- but only to a degree. The president has always spent plenty of time on his domestic agenda: Social Security reform, tax cuts and the fight against same-sex marriage. What he hasn't done so much is what he did last night -- focus, however fleetingly, on the problems of race and poverty in America.
"Within the Gulf region are some of the most beautiful and historic places in America," Bush said last night. "As all of us saw on television, there's also some deep, persistent poverty in this region, as well. That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action."
These aren't the kind of words we've heard much from Bush over the past four and a half years. So far as we can tell, he has uttered the words "racial discrimination" four times during his presidency -- once during a celebration of African-American History Month, once at an event commemorating the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, once when he nominated Condoleezza Rice to serve as secretary of state, and once when he explained his opposition to the University of Michigan's affirmative-action policies.
We searched -- and searched and searched -- the White House Web site for speeches in which Bush has focused on the problem of poverty in America. To be fair, we did finally find a couple. At an event in June 2002, Bush celebrated the successes of the welfare reform legislation Bill Clinton signed in 1996. And in a speech in February 2002, Bush vowed to "continue a determined assault on poverty in this country."
If you're thinking that you haven't heard much about the president's "determined assault on poverty" since then, you're right -- sort of. Bush has talked often about poverty in the developing world, and he used the specter of senior citizens in poverty as a way to sell his plan to privatize Social Security. But our search of his speeches revealed nary a word about eliminating poverty in America since early 2002. And yet, Bush has made progress in some aspects of the poverty-eradication plan he outlined then. He has overseen cuts in entitlement programs, he's funneled money to faith-based organizations, he's continued to push abstinence education and he's worked, in his own way, to "strengthen marriage."
Those are the approaches Bush advocated as poverty killers. Have they worked? That's a hard case to make. The nation's poverty rate has increased four years in a row now.
But even if it took a natural disaster to do it, the good news is that the president is focused on the problems of race and poverty now, right? Well, not exactly. Last night, Bush talked of racial discrimination in the past tense, and -- aside from saying that there should be minority-owned businesses in New Orleans -- he offered no thought at all about how the government or the people should "rise above the legacy of inequality." As for poverty, he advanced a couple of specific proposals for the Gulf Coast region. He argued for tax incentives for businesses, "worker recovery accounts" for victims of the hurricane and a lottery by which poor folks would have a chance to win unused government property on which they could build new homes "with either a mortgage or help from a charitable organization."
It's not much, and it's not national. Katrina has forced the wartime president to see the problems of race and poverty back home. What he has not yet understood -- or what he simply chooses to ignore -- is that those problems are wider than the hurricane's path and deeper than the water that flooded New Orleans.