Four years ago last week I sat in the National Cathedral when President Bush spoke of our nation meeting in the "middle hour of our grief." I watched his address to a joint session of Congress a few days later, following along with one of the final versions of the speech in hand: "Tonight we are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom. Our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done." After 9/11, the president seemed as big as the office he held.
I expected him to reach those same heights during his primetime speech from New Orleans' French Quarter on Sept. 15. But as he has for the last few weeks since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf States, he seemed as overwhelmed as the city and region he is trying to rescue.
Four years ago, he was still a new president and a vibrant man. At first he stumbled, but then he quickly found his footing. In New Orleans, he seemed like an old president and a tired man, worn down from the trials he is facing: Iraq, terror, the Supreme Court, gas prices, a squishy economy, and three weeks of Hurricane Katrina blunders up and down the government. He stepped before the cameras and into the living rooms of Americans stunned and shaken from three weeks of images of our fellow citizens begging for food, water, sanitation, clothes, and basic order in our own cities and towns.
I waited for him to lift my sights with words and passion and fervor. I wanted that same ferocity he had when he vowed to protect all that was America. But between the repeated 1-800 number and the pitch to visit a website, it felt more like an infomercial. Americans needed a great vision, because what Katrina highlighted wasn't just a failure in the mechanisms of government but the disturbing realities of race and poverty in America. Those with middle-class means and above escaped the storm and its aftermath. Those below that line didn't possess the means to save themselves. Their physical immobility echoed their economic or social immobility: They were stuck where they were in every sense. This was true for their parents and their parents before them. No area of America has been so poor for so long as people in the Gulf Coast area.
But maybe this is where God's mercy for President Bush's policies come into play. Maybe the hound of heaven is steering him back to earlier promises.
It is famously said that even the great presidents are known by just a few phrases. Some are lamentable: "I am not a crook"; "I did not have sex with that woman."' "I have committed lust in my heart." Others are stirring: "A day that will live in infamy"; "Ask not what your country can do for you"; "America is a shining city on a hill"; "The era of big government is over."
Where Bush has been and where he needs to go
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Much of the past four years has been about the former. Government's first duty is to protect our borders, and he has done what he has seen fit in that area. The efficacy of those choices is passionately debated elsewhere.
But as regards the armies of compassion and the compassionate conservative agenda, there is little debate. There have been a lot of beautiful words and some serious regulatory changes but not much serious cash. The president's promises for more than $8 billion per year in tax incentives and new spending to help in worker training, welfare-to-work initiatives, mentoring programs, and infrastructure assistance for social-service organizations faded into small pilot projects valiantly run by men and women in the White House who are working with crumbs from OMB's table. By the most generous estimates, a few hundred million dollars have been spent in these directions, but even those numbers are a bit iffy.
That was what made the president's promises for vast new economic aid to the Gulf region last week so striking. They were the boldest and richest domestic policy proposals of his presidency. Maybe President Bush got behind-the-scenes counsel from T.D. Jakes, the great African-American pastor who preached boldly during the National Cathedral prayer service for Katrina's victims saying: "It is not so important what we say. It is important what we do. The defining moments of history cannot be defined by rhetoric and words or anger or soliciting people to respond in a tempestuous way, but real leadership is defined by what we do."
The president's plans are bold and will be expensive. His call for an "urban homesteading act"--allowing low-income individuals to participate in a government land lottery provided they use it to build new homes with the assistance of groups like Habitat for Humanity--could introduce homeownership to tens of thousands of families who have never known such a thing is possible.
The "worker recovery accounts" he announced will provide $5,000 for displaced employees-or those not previously employed-for job training and assistance. And if people find work before the 16-week training cycle ends, they will be able to keep the money as an employment bonus.
The other incentives for rebuilding businesses, encouraging entrepreneurship, and promoting business investment in the Gulf-area are similarly significant.
But on some important matters, there was silence. The first is the call to sacrifice. The president has yet to call upon Americans to sacrifice somehow, some way. America is wealthy and there is no telling how much money could be raised if we simply said no to a few discretionary expenses here or there. Americans are willing and eager to prove themselves a "great generation." But we need an appeal to the better angels of our nature, so that we give not just in times of tragedy but out of hope for something that could be.
The second is to sacrifice a tax cut or two. The president needs to rescind the estate-tax rollback that overwhelmingly benefits the very wealthy. Independent studies verify that the estate-tax rollback has cost charities between $10 and $20 billion per year in donations. Because there is no longer any tax incentive to give to charities, people are just sitting on their money. Four years ago, the White House sacrificed a massive charitable donation tax incentive in favor of getting rid of the estate tax. It was one of the great mistakes of the president's "compassionate conservative" agenda. This is the chance to right that wrong.
In kicking off his first presidential campaign, then-Gov. Bush promised billions in new funds for the poor. Critics within his own party mocked him. They are mocking him again for his new proposals. "Fiscal conservatives" say he is just spending too much money to help in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The president's plain talk about racism and poverty has conservative groups mailing their membership to rally opposition to new "big government" attempts to help the poor.
President Bush should relish this fight within the GOP. It was exactly this wing of the party that he confronted in 1999 when he gave the first speech of his presidential campaign titled `The Duty of Hope." He singled out the "destructive mindset" of those in the Republican Party who simply thought it best if government "just got out of the way."
That was not his approach. "In this campaign, I bring a message to my own party. We must apply our conservative and free-market ideas to the job of helping real human beings--because any ideology, no matter how right in theory, is sterile and empty without that goal. There must be a kindness in our justice. There must be a mercy in our judgment. There must be a love behind our zeal."
Last night an older, humbler, more worn George Bush stood in New Orleans and gave me hope that he still remembered his promise to be a different kind of leader. He would care for the poor. He would build bridges to the other party no matter how unreasonable they were. He would take on his own party. A lot of things got in the way of the president I truly believe he wanted to be. Maybe God is giving him a second chance.