Thursday, September 01, 2005

Bush and New Orleans 

I had no intention of commenting on Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath in New Orleans. Everyone else is writing about it, and many are more qualified than I. But then, this e-mail came to me yesterday.

I am interested to see your thoughts on how President Bush's somewhat "lack of presence" in New Orleans, or the South for that matter, could turn into a PR fiasco in the remaining years of his term. There's a strong presence of local and state politicians in the South, even our own Texas Governor on Larry King last night. But just a "fly over" in Air Force One? His father was criticized for not reacting fast enough to Hurricane Andrew, and later lost the election. Seems fishy. I'd be interested to read your thoughts.

With that kind of invitation, how could one resist?

So here's what I think strictly from a communications and perception point of view. Bush shot himself badly by going to San Diego and being photographed with gift guitar in hand. Perceptually it looked like he didn't care or wasn't informed. Neither position is acceptable for a President to take. However, Bush didn't kill himself. He can recover if he's careful -- and he and his people have had a history of being careful about public perception. Time will tell whether he can make up for lost ground. After all, he was criticized for failing to return to Washington immediately after 9/11, and he survived that.

Bush has several challenges now that he didn't have during 9/11. He has an unpopular war on his hands that already cost him popularity. He has high gas prices that upset drivers before Hurricane Katrina and has them screaming now. He had Hurricane Katrina in Florida before it reached the Gulf Coast and New Orleans. He has most major newspapers against him and eager to score points. Finally, he has had four years in office and is working on a fifth. That is plenty of time for people to dislike him for one reason or another.

Given these challenges, there is little chance his popularity will ever again approach the levels that he had post 9/11. But, it doesn't have to, and he can still be effective. It's a question of when and how he acts to seize the initiative. He doesn't have much time left before the whole affair gets away from him. Some would say that he has lost his chance already. However, he hasn't been a "White House President," who stays in the Oval Office. He did travel to New York to talk to the firefighters. He is going to the Gulf Coast to survey the damage.

There is still a chance that he can win the perception war, but he needs to move quickly -- and he knows it. (Now, pardon me if I don't comment on this topic again.)


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