September 12, 2005, 6:45 P.M.
The Boy in the Bubble: A little more than a week after expressing his confidence in Michael Brown head of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, the President has accepted the resignation of the man he affectionately referred to as “Brownie.” Brown was recalled last Friday to Washington and was replaced as the head of relief efforts for victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff named Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen to head Katrina relief efforts. Allen met and traveled with President Bush during his recent visit to Louisiana. Bush apparently approved Chertoff's decision to replace Brown with Allen. Allen, being a career Coast Guard officer, certainly does not carry the baggage of political patronage that dogged and eventually contributed to Brown’s downfall. Of course, the major contributing factor in Brown’s demise has been his demonstrated lack of credentials and outright incompetence, but the President still initially stood by “old Brownie.”
While it is certainly true that there will be a lot of blame to be passed around regarding the early handling of the rescue and relief effort, the President’s top down isolationist approach to his job clearly showed flaws in this instance. The Department of Homeland Security, the agency charged with putting together an early and effective response to disaster relief, failed in this case to effectively and efficiently respond. This is particularly troubling when one recalls that this agency was created in the wake of 9/11 to better coordinate disaster responses among state, local and federal agencies. Former New Jersey Governor and 9/11 Commission member Tom Kean, has publicly expressed his frustration at the fact that many of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations to Congress were not adopted, and that those recommendations, had they been adopted, would have facilitated better communication among officials and first responders.
Mike Allen, in a recent Time Magazine article, attributes much of the failure of the administration to react quickly to the political problems caused by Katrina to what he calls Bush’s top down management style and continued isolation from unfiltered information. Allen says “A related factor, aides and outside allies concede, is what many of them see as the President's increasing isolation. Bush's bubble has grown more hermetic in the second term, they say, with fewer people willing or able to bring him bad news--or tell him when he's wrong.” This is consistent with the apparent philosophy that it is okay to fill key agency positions with political lackeys and unqualified hacks because according to the Bush/Rove Cheney model, “the only people that matter are in the White House.” as Allen puts it, “The result is a kind of echo chamber in which good news can prevail over bad--even when there is a surfeit of evidence to the contrary.”
But administration politics are on the mend, so to speak. The President’s political focus has now been redirected at the recovery from Katrina and is aimed squarely at fixing the ill effects of the slow federal response. The Administration has now focused its attacks on the failure of local and state officials to ask for assistance in exactly the right way and at exactly the right time. Of course, there was no proactive federal effort to prepare, to give needed assistance or advice at what was admittedly an overwhelming time. Isn’t that what the whole Homeland Security scheme was supposed to facilitate? Of course the President is once again calling up the 9/11 card and evoking comparisons between the attacks and the current natural disaster. Apparently there is some sort of link between these two tragedies inside of the bubble. To the rest of us it looks, or should look, like more a political ploy aimed at deflecting attention from the failure to improve, in any substantial way, the ability of the federal government to respond to domestic disasters or to fulfill the post-9/11 promises of safety and security. Outside of the bubble, the reality is that we are not safer when our government refuses to accept critical input or constructive criticism.
President Bush truly does resemble the “Boy in the Bubble” but he is in there by choice and by design. His masterful handlers will attempt to spin a positive political result from this disaster, but their efforts will only result in another web of deceit and obfuscation. The people affected and disenfranchised by this disaster will not be better off because of the White House’s efforts to make the President look better, and I’m certain they don’t all feel fortunate to be living in a shelter in Texas.