When George W. Bush stumbled and then stumbled and then stumbled again in the first days after Hurricane Katrina, the people around him were disappointed but not alarmed. The president is a "better third- and fourth-quarter player," one of his most trusted confidants told Time, and he would come through big time once he finally saw the stakes. But if Bush's speech from New Orleans last week was supposed to be some kind of two-minute drill, the president's supporters are still waiting for their quarterback to get into the game.
"The Hurrieder President Bush Goes, the Behinder He Gets," SurveyUSA reports after reviewing the results of three days' worth of polling that followed Bush's speech. SurveyUSA says the number of Americans who approve of the way Bush is responding to Katrina has shrunk since his speech: Forty-two percent approved before and 40 percent approve now. The disapproval numbers have moved up more sharply: Fifty-two percent disapproved of Bush's handling of the hurricane before the speech, while 56 percent disapprove now.
SurveyUSA says Bush is stuck in a "can't win" dynamic: Much of the public thinks that the government hasn't done enough to respond to Katrina, but Bush loses support among his base if he tries to do too much more. "The more cash President Bush throws on the fire, as compensation for what some see as an inadequate initial response, the more it antagonizes his core supporters," the pollsters say.
Of course, we're still early in the game. Nothing really goes in the political win-loss column until the midterm elections in 2006, and those are still more than a year away. Will voters remember the federal government's response to Katrina then? Will they hold it against Bush and the members of Congress who have supported him? The Democrats plainly hope so, and some of them are starting to do what they can to make the Katrina hit stick.
In a speech he's delivering today at Brown University, John Kerry attempts to brand the Bush administration with the flaws of the Katrina response. "This is the Katrina administration," Kerry says. "Katrina is a symbol of all this administration does and doesn't do. Michael Brown -- or Brownie as the president so famously thanked him for 'doing a heck of a job' -- Brownie is to Katrina what Paul Bremer is to peace in Iraq; what George Tenet is to 'slam dunk' intelligence; what Paul Wolfowitz is to parades paved with flowers in Baghdad; what Dick Cheney is to visionary energy policy; what Donald Rumsfeld is to basic war planning; what Tom DeLay is to ethics; and what George Bush is to 'Mission accomplished' and 'Wanted dead or alive.' The bottom line is simple: The 'We'll do whatever it takes' administration doesn't have what it takes to get the job done."
That's not entirely true, of course. As Kerry acknowledges, the last time the teams met, the Bush administration had exactly what it took to get the job done. The question is next time, and that game has barely begun.