Saturday, September 17, 2005

The pain-free presidency

This post appeared first on on Sunday, Sept. 18.


The White House advance team did its usual bang-up job in shining a bright light on President George W. Bush Thursday night as he stood in the darkness of New Orleans' Jackson Square and promised that, with his administration's help, the devastated and largely deserted city would rise again. Too bad our Compassionate Conservative has never invested a tenth as much interest in the federal bureaucracy as he has in his image consultants.

By the very next day, Mr. Bush had made clear that his gain-with-no-pain presidency hadn't changed its tune. As The New York Times lead headline pronounced "FEMA, slow to the rescue, now stumbles in aid effort," W. pledged that the rebuilding of New Orleans -- estimated by some at $200 billion -- would be accomplished with no new taxes. In fact, he continued to call for an extension of his tax cuts, which, The Times noted, stand to drain $1.4 trillion more from federal coffers over the next decade.

These are astronomical numbers, too big for anyone but a macro budget wonk to fully grasp. But anyone who has run up their credit card debt past what they can conceivably repay has a good intuitive sense of what the President is doing to the federal budget. It's already as awash in red ink as New Orleans' flooded neighborhoods are in toxic waters. Yet once again the President is insisting he'll solve a massive problem -- in this case, New Orleans' problem -- with no pain, no sacrifice and no reprecussions for the rest of us.

Will this country allow itself to be fooled once again? Do we really think this reconstruction will work a whole lot better than Iraq's, where our soldiers regularly get blown to bits because of a shortage of body armor and where billions earmarked for reconstruction have disappeared with little to show for it?

The early signs are not good. While it's too early to tell whether the administration will revert to its Iraq pattern of doing things on the cheap and inventing priority and rationale as it goes, we've already seen what five years neglect of the Federal Emergency Management Agency has accomplished.

New director or not, that agency's efforts still are coming up short, The Times reports. Storm victims can't get through to FEMA by phone. Many federal help centers, which are supposed to be central sites for aid and information, still don't exist. Evacuees struggle even to get information about family members scattered around the country.

"The problems clearly stem largely from the sheer enormousness of the disaster," The Times acknowledges. "But the lack of investment in emergency preparedness, poor coordination across a sprawling federal bureaucracy and massive failure of local communication systems -- all of which hurt the initial rescue efforts -- are now impeding the recovery."

Most eerie, in a century of computer databases and up-to-the-second communication systems, is that even efforts to reunite parents with an estimated 2,000 separated or missing children apparently are so scattershot three weeks after Katrina that the cable network CNN is dedicating much of this weekend's news to showing some of the lost and separated children on television.

So who again is in charge here?

Calling on God's help, as the President did Saturday in his weekly radio address, falls short of an answer. And promising the American public a free pass, when it comes to taxes or any other form of sacrifice, will do nothing but assure that the bill collector and repo man will come calling in the next administration and in generations to come.


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