The post-Katrina presidency

In remarks Tuesday on Hurricane Katrina, President Bush spoke of “serious problems in our response capability” and questioned whether the United States can handle another major storm or a terrorist attack. “To the extent that the federal government didn’t fully do its job right, I take responsibility,” the president asserted. Well said: These are steps along the higher road and are to be applauded.

But the country needs Mr. Bush to follow up with real policy changes in order to ensure recovery. It needs more than first responders, too: The president must reassess the full gamut of our vulnerabilities, from the porous borders to the paucity of Arabic translators in the military to the need for more cargo inspectors in our ports. Those are just a few of the problems the president needs to seriously re-address. Only real leadership can elevate the debate above the recriminations evident in the last two weeks.

Toward that end, we hope to see him announce a top-to-bottom review of the nation’s homeland-security and disaster-preparedness capabilities. There are some indications Mr. Bush will do this. For one, on Tuesday the president pointed toward bold actions to fix the problems. “Are we capable of dealing with a severe attack or another severe storm?” he asked. “That’s a very important question and it’s in our national interest that we find out exactly what went on so we can better respond.”

According to ABC News, an anonymous administration official appeared to second the likelihood of bold moves by telling reporters that tonight’s address will be unlike anything the president has delivered previously. It will be “explanatory,” the official said. It will lay out a strategy in the way that a State of the Union address does and will “sketch a vision of the future.” But it is not a rally speech; its intent is to get the country thinking about the future it wants and what it takes to get there. He is also reportedly planning to address the racial accusations swirling around efforts in the Gulf Coast.

The most necessary elements of the president’s vision are already evident to the American people. They will include a renewed Federal Emergency Management Agency, to be accomplished after exhaustive study of its evident decline and the reasons behind it; a hard look at what it takes to make the Department of Homeland Security live up to its name; a call for Congress to revamp the appropriations processes by which money was spent on virtually everything but levee fortification; and moves toward better coordination with authorities at the state and local levels.

But it should also include the same homeland-security fundamentals we’ve been writing about since before the September 11 attacks. Whatever the president does, the success of his second term and probably his entire presidency will hinge upon it, and rightly so.

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