Two Important Speeches

With his poll numbers standing at their lowest point, a “kinder and gentler” George W. Bush appeared on both the world and national stages last week.

It all began on Tuesday, with the President’s acceptance of blame for his Administration’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina. Some political commentators expressed surprise at this acknowledgement of responsibility, noting that it was a rare occurrence.

Maybe it was rare, but in this case, it was smart.

The post-Katrina rancor had become both disturbing and potentially destructive with both Republicans and Democrats attacking and pointing fingers at each other. With polls showing that the public is dissatisfied with the performance of all levels of government, it is clear that no one is winning the blame game.

By displaying leadership and accepting responsibility, Bush has helped to change both the tone and character of the post-Katrina discussion. In fact, shortly after the President spoke, Louisiana’s beleaguered Governor, who had been critical of the White House response, and in turn had come under blistering attack by the President’s supporters, accepted her share of the blame as well. It now appears a new relationship is developing between the Administration and Louisiana’s state and local governments.

All of this laid the groundwork for the President’s Thursday night address to the nation. Speaking in shirtsleeves from New Orleans, against the backdrop of that city’s historic Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral, Bush delivered one of the better speeches of his Administration.

He was compassionate, almost visionary, and very much in command. Once again Bush accepted responsibility for the initial failures and pledged that he would support efforts to find out what went wrong. Bush went further, laying out an ambitious and comprehensive rebuilding and reconstruction program for not only New Orleans, but the entire Gulf Coast.

Most impressive was the way the President dealt with the issues of race and class that had been exposed in Katrina’s wake. Acknowledging that poverty “has roots in a history of racial discrimination,” Bush laid out a program that would give priority attention to providing special economic benefits to disadvantaged minorities in the reconstruction effort.

This was not the only new George W. Bush on display this past week. The President’s address before the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday was equally noteworthy for its apparent change in direction. The New York Times headlined its article on the speech, “Bush Thanks World Leaders and Takes Conciliatory Tone.” And one commentator observed that parts of the address sounded more like the Bush, who during the 2000 Presidential campaign called for a “more humble, less arrogant” American foreign policy.

Most striking was the President’s embrace of the Millennium Development Goals and other international commitments designed to reduce world poverty. His acceptance of these programs came only a few weeks after the US’s controversial UN Ambassador, John Bolton, was reported to be pressuring other nations to drop these goals from the document that was to emerge from this week’s UN sessions.

In his address to the General Assembly, the President also appealed for world unity in fighting not only terrorism, but the root causes of terror, which he identified as poverty, despair and resentment.

All in all, a good week for the President and an important one, as well. Both the UN and New Orleans speeches indicate changes in direction and Bush’s intention to rebuild not only the battered Gulf Coast, but his Presidency and US prestige around the world.

The big question, of course, is will it work? Or is it too late for Bush to rebound?

Can the President, who is, in part, responsible for the deep partisan divide that has characterized his terms in office, earn the confidence of enough Americans to create majority support for his efforts?

The political initiatives put forth in both speeches are already being criticized by both the right and the left. The right is troubled by the President’s embrace of “big government” spending programs and his apparent move away from a muscular unilateral “with us or against us” foreign policy. Liberals, on the other hand, are expressing skepticism, suggesting that they don’t trust the President to deliver on his commitments and wary that his initiatives may turn out to be like the debacle of the Iraq war reconstruction effort–”characterized by out of control spending, cronyism and an absence of planning.

Is Bush serious? And, if he is, is there enough time and trust for the President to change direction? These are the issues we will follow in the weeks and months to come. All prompted by two important speeches.