Everyone remembers the iconic images of leadership from 9/11: New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani leading stricken New Yorkers from the World Trade Center. President Bush at Ground Zero three days after the attacks, declaring, "I can hear you. The rest of the world can hear you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon."
In the Katrina crisis, which is bigger and more complex than 9/11, with no convenient foreign enemy to rally against, the images have been very different. Local officials were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the disaster. Federal officials seemed out of touch. Most strikingly, when an interviewer asked Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, about the thousands of evacuees at the New Orleans Convention Center who had been without food and water for days, Brown responded, "The federal government did not even know about the convention center until today." That admission came four days after the hurricane.
The situation in New Orleans was out of control. "You mean to tell me," Mayor Ray Nagin protested in a radio interview, "that in a place where you probably have thousands of people that have died and thousands more that are dying every day, that we can't figure out a way to authorize the resources that we need?"
Presidential scholar James Ceaser of the University of Virginia observed, "What people hoped to see was everyone rallying together against the implacable force of nature. Instead, they're seeing people fighting each other, not only inside New Orleans but among governing officials."
In a crisis, people demand leadership. "This is the fundamental role of the president in times of major national crisis," political scientist Gary Jacobson of the University of California (San Diego) said. "To take the lead and to show that he is in charge."
When President Bush first visited the stricken area, he said, "I am satisfied with the response. I am not satisfied with all the results." That statement drew a sharp rebuke from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "How could the president be satisfied with the response? I think we have a problem if the president thinks that this response is satisfactory."
Anger and outrage seemed to erupt from all sides. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., called the federal response "nothing short of a national disgrace." He demanded to know, "How is it possible that the administration did not realize earlier what a catastrophe this is?" Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, D-Mich., declared at a Congressional Black Caucus news conference, "I'm ashamed of America. I'm ashamed of our government."
The anger was not limited to Democrats. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., called the federal relief effort an "operational failure." He described FEMA as "completely dysfunctional and completely overwhelmed." Nor was the Republican anger limited to the devastated states. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said, "As a test of the homeland-security system, this was a failure."
The Washington Times' editorial page, usually friendly territory for Bush, said, "We expected to see, many hours ago, the president we saw standing atop the ruin of the World Trade Center." Instead, the editors wrote, Bush "risks losing the one trait his critics have never dented: his ability to lead, and be seen leading."
Given the torrent of criticism, the results of a poll taken by The Washington Post and ABC News on Friday, September 2, were surprising. Were Americans "angry" over the federal government's response? Only 45 percent were, most of them Democrats. Were Americans "ashamed"? Forty-four percent said yes, again largely Democrats.
Mostly, the public was divided.
Asked about Bush's handling of the crisis, 46 percent said they approved, while 47 percent disapproved. By 55 percent to 44 percent, the public was not ready to blame Bush for shortcomings in the federal government's response. But Americans were highly critical of that response. By more than 2-to-1, people said that the federal government was not adequately prepared for the crisis.
Such a view holds political danger for the president. If the public remains highly critical of the government, sooner or later, the blame will fall on the head of government.
That is why the White House scrambled to try to regain its political footing. The administration avoided assessments of what went wrong—"We will have time to go back and do an after-action report," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said, "but the time right now is to look at what the enormous tasks ahead are." Administration officials tried to shift blame to local authorities. "Our constitutional system really places the primary authority in each state with the governor," Chertoff said. By 3-to-1, people said that state and local governments were not adequately prepared.
Bush made a second trip to stricken areas and had his weekly radio address televised. Bush's strength has always been his image as a leader, as a take-charge guy. His father was widely seen as a politician who was out of touch, and his handling of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 reinforced that image.
In this much larger crisis, the public expected to see the president come in and kick butt—looking like the Giuliani or the Bush of 9/11. Instead, for days, the country experienced a vacuum of leadership, the frightening sense that no one was in control. That leadership vacuum was menacing for Bush, because it threatened to undermine the one thing he had going for him even as his job-approval ratings declined.