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The role of culture | The role of religion | The environment | Helping the victims | The face of Katrina | First person

How did politics affect the recovery effort?

By Jim Riddlesperger, Chair
Department of political science

Metaphorically, one might say that the president lives in the eye of a hurricane. While the White House itself is rather calm, it exists in a turbulent atmosphere circulating around it all of the time. For the Bush administration during the Hurricane Katrina crisis, three bands of turbulence affected decision-making. These bands exist regardless of the success level of response.

First, there was the complication of federalism. The United States is a patchwork of literally thousands of governments. Any time there is a crisis such as Katrina, governments must coordinate their responses. That has always been a problem in the United States, and a problem that the founding fathers created intentionally. Duplication of effort and dispersion of political power was, for them, a way to guarantee that government would not become too powerful. However, in recent years, and in particular since September 11, such coordination has become paramount. There were literally dozens of city, parish, county, special purpose, and state governments involved in the response. They were jointly responsible for both preparation for the storm and response to the storm. Clearly, despite the emphasis on developing coordination within the Department of Homeland Security, there is still work to be done.

Second, there was the fact that even the national government response seemed sluggish and incomplete. Of course, President Bush recognized the shortcomings of the response and attempted to reorganize federal efforts quickly to assure higher quality efforts. The initial response was criticized especially because of the appearance that the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency had been selected primarily for his political connections, not because of experience dealing with natural disasters. Of course, all presidents appoint around 3,000 people to policy-making positions in the federal government when they come to office. They have to balance the need to have appointees who are competent in their jobs with the desire to have people in place who are loyal to the president and work to carry out his policies. Not surprisingly, being human, all presidents strike this balance imperfectly. When an appointee turns out not to be equipped to do his job adequately, it is an embarrassment to the president. As a result, presidents would be well-advised to take more care in making appointments in the first place. But regardless of how careful they may be in making appointments, a critical element in leadership is how quickly they react when problems emerge.

Third, there was the flurry of television coverage that raised public expectations to perhaps an unreasonable level. With reporters on the ground across a very large area affected by Katrina, the logistical impediments to coordinating the huge relief operation were not appreciated fully in early coverage. And all missteps in developing a response were magnified perhaps beyond a proper perspective. Moreover, there were assertions that Katrina response paled in comparison with an immediate and effective response to international crises such as the Tsunami in Southeast Asia. Such assertions were not based on systematic evaluation and were misleading regarding both efforts.

President Bush, like his predecessors and his successors, will receive criticism regardless of what actions he takes. Of course, political opponents will use any excuse to exploit his vulnerabilities and allies will defend him regardless of the merits of his performance. One would hope, however, that responses to natural disasters and terrorism attacks could move beyond partisan politics. In circumstances such as these, all should work together to address human need.

Debate and discourse are essential to the making of effective public policy. And legitimate disputes about the making of national security policy, economic policy and domestic policy mark a healthy democracy. Let’s have those debates, and enter into them with enthusiasm. Such debates are the food of healthy government. But let’s join with one another to solve problems of human need in times such as these.

Comment at tcumagazine@tcu.edu.