For Bush, likability is not enough
First fix the problem and then fix the blame. Or so the old saying goes.
But the Bush administration's initial response to Hurricane Katrina was such a debacle that the blame fixing has started early.
At the top of the blame list is, of course, President Bush. His laggardly, confused, and inadequate response will have political repercussions that will outlast his presidency.
Gone, at least for awhile, will be the presidential model that both he and Ronald Reagan symbolized: The likable, somewhat disengaged, CEO-style president who (allegedly) surrounds himself with good people and then lets them work pretty much without direction.
In the past, this worked. If you look at recent presidential elections you can make a case that voters always picked the most likable candidate, not necessarily the brightest one:
George Bush was more likable than John Kerry or policy wonk Al Gore (though Gore did win the popular vote). George H.W. Bush was more likable than wonky Michael Dukakis but not more likable than Bill Clinton. And Ronald Reagan was more likable than both Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale.
President Bush's political team has always depended on his likability. When I went down to Austin in 2000 to interview his top political aides, one told me that the whole purpose of the campaign was to show that Bush could clear the minimal "bar of competency" and after that the voters would be won over by his affability, his pledge to be a uniter and not a divider, etc.
After September 11, the nation rallied around its president and only relatively recently, in the midst of our prolonged and continuing occupation of Iraq, has Bush's popularity begun to slip.
Now, after Katrina, the policy wonks are beginning to look a lot better than the grip-and-grinners. A policy wonk might have actually had a plan for dealing with a major flood in a city largely below sea level, and he might have executed that plan with reasonable swiftness.
A policy wonk might, for example, have immediately sent in our resident experts in amphibious operations: the U.S. Marines. A policy wonk might have done something right away instead of staying on vacation.
Just how bad is the political fallout for Bush? Ask his fellow Republicans.
The first U.S. senator I know of who called for a congressional investigation of the Katrina shambles was Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, who chairs a subcommittee on homeland security.
"There has to be a plan in placealong with adequate resources to be able to evacuate people, or at least provide relief supplies before panic sets in," Kyl said. "None of this appears to have been done in Louisiana."
Republican Mark Foley, a congressman from Florida, unsuccessfully called upon Bush to bring back from Iraq National Guard units whose states were devastated by Katrina.
Former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said: "If we can't respond faster than this to an event we saw coming across the Gulf for days, then why do we think we're prepared to respond to a nuclear or biological attack?"