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Bush’s rescue mission

WHEN PRESIDENT BUSH stepped to the podium in front of New Orleans’ St. Louis Cathedral on Thursday night, his topic was rebuilding a hurricane-ravaged region. But his goal clearly was to rescue his presidency, which Katrina’s storm surge tattered as well.

Two major polls released Thursday showed that about 40% of those surveyed approved of Bush’s work overall, the lowest mark of his presidency. The federal government’s slow response to the crisis on the Gulf Coast has compounded growing doubts about other administration initiatives, especially the war in Iraq.

Bush, who looked like he’d dispensed with his tie and jacket just moments before appearing on camera, promised “one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen.”

“There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans,” he said, pledging to pick up the tab for “the great majority” of the infrastructure repairs.

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The president listed the impressive array of initiatives undertaken to help evacuees. And he laid out a series of initiatives that would apply Republican principles to the reconstruction effort, including proposals to give away home-building lots to displaced families with low incomes and to slash taxes for entrepreneurs who create jobs in the devastated region. The president’s call for a “Gulf Opportunity Zone” is intriguing, but he needs to make sure storm relief doesn’t become a Trojan horse for every conservative ideologue’s favorite pet project. Flat tax, anyone?

He left for another day any discussion of where the hundreds of billions of dollars to pay for reconstruction will come from, but that day can’t be put off indefinitely. He praised the generosity of Americans in the wake of Katrina, but he soon may have to ask for some sacrifice to help pay the bills. The death of the “death tax,” for instance, no longer looks certain.

To his credit, Bush acknowledged the government’s failure to respond effectively in the aftermath of the hurricane, and he accepted responsibility for the federal share of the problem. He also prodded local leaders to do a better job preparing for what clearly is their role -- evacuating, securing and provisioning their cities in the event of a disaster or terrorist attack. Yet Bush’s assertion that a challenge of this scale raises new questions about coordination between federal and local officials begs the question: What has the administration been doing in the four years since the 9/11 attacks, if not preparing the country for such a catastrophic event?

Bush’s speech helped him regain his political footing for now. But whether he rescues his legacy from the putrid waters swirling in the streets of New Orleans will depend on whether the aspirations expressed Thursday night are translated into a truly bright future for the region.

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