Four years ago, President George W. Bush was on shaky political ground. He had barely won the controversial 2000 election, and polls showed the American people remained doubtful about him. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Bush found his voice and the American people rallied around his presidency. Thanks to Osama Bin Laden, Bush’s popularity soared, and while his ratings had diminished by the 2004 election, his “war on terrorism” helped him win a second term.
In September 2005, another crisis, Hurricane Katrina, probably killed at least as many Americans as the terrorist attacks in 2001, but it had the opposite effect on Bush’s poll numbers, which dropped to an all-time low. Why the startling difference?
For one thing, the September 11 attacks were by a human enemy, and despite inadequate domestic preparations for such an event, Americans’ anger was directed outward. Katrina, on the other hand, was a terrible act of nature, but one that was predicted by the national weather service with impressive accuracy. The inadequate preparation and slow response by the Bush administration meant that anger was directed at the president.
To be sure, some of the blame for poor preparation belongs to state and local officials. But the Bush administration bears a significant share of the responsibility. In the 2000 election campaign, Bush praised Bill Clinton’s Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) for its effectiveness. As president, he treated it as a source of patronage, replacing its top officials with political cronies who had little experience in managing emergencies.