Rita gives Bush new opportunity to do things right

Published September 23, 2005

WASHINGTON - Hurricane Rita will give President Bush a second chance.

After being widely criticized for the government's sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, Bush is getting an unusual opportunity for a presidential do-over.

The second monster storm in less than a month will allow Bush to correct some of the mistakes of Katrina. He can do a better job deploying federal workers before landfall, make sure the feds are talking with state and local officials and mobilize a giant relief effort after the hurricane.

He can also reassure a skeptical public that he's in charge. His poll ratings were down before Katrina and have plummeted since then. He looked shaky during the first few days after the storm.

His praise for Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency - "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" - made Bush look out of touch as television viewers watched New Orleans drift into chaos.

With Rita, he can assert himself and try to erase the memories of the first storm. Republicans say Bush has learned some painful lessons.

"My sense is everybody is better prepared," said Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow.

Rep. Mark Foley, a Republican from West Palm Beach, believes Bush was unfairly blamed for problems in Katrina that were caused by all levels of government. But Foley says Bush's image was damaged and that the new storm will let him make some repairs.

"I think this gives him a second window of opportunity to show his compassion and that he is willing to move mountains to get things done," Foley said.

Some early signs look positive.

Bush said Thursday that "officials at every level of government are preparing for the worst. Our armed forces have pre-positioned troops. We have resources there to help the federal, state and local officials to respond swiftly and effectively."

He has already named a Coast Guard admiral to oversee the federal effort in Texas and declared the storm an "incident of national significance," allowing a massive federal response. He's also appointed Lt. Gen. Robert Clark, commander of the Fifth Army, to oversee the military task force for the storm.

Brownie is long gone. He has been replaced by former Miami-Dade fire official David Paulison, who came across well during a TV briefing Thursday. Afterward, CNN anchor Kyra Phillips remarked, "it's great to see the acting director of FEMA taking charge like that."

Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Democrat from the Fort Lauderdale area, said Bush seems to have responded to the criticism from Katrina. "He's doing the right thing - even if it is being driven by poll numbers."

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., said Bush "can't undo the problems from before. But he can avoid compounding his problems" if the Texas response goes smoothly.

Still, there were glitches in the giant evacuation from Houston on Thursday. Dozens of federal security screeners did not show up for work, leading to long delays at airport checkpoints.

It was Bush who put the airport screeners and FEMA in the new Department of Homeland Security so they would have better coordination during crises like this one. But on Thursday, no one made sure the screeners showed up for work. Once again, it seemed the right hand didn't know what the left hand was doing.

Foley predicted that even if the federal government does a good job helping the victims of Rita, Bush will be criticized.

"The media will say, "He did a good job because it's Texas. He only cares about rigs and his oil buddies.' "

The next few days will be a crucial test for Bush. He may not erase the memories of Katrina, but he can reassure the nation he can handle a crisis - regardless of whether it's caused by terrorists or Mother Nature.

Washington Bureau Chief Bill Adair can be reached at 202 463-0575 or adair@sptimes.com