President Bush was seated in the White House Situation Room, watching military and disaster officials beaming in from the Gulf Coast on the giant screen of his secure video- teleconferencing system. It had been nearly a week since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, ripping gashes in the Superdome and swamping homes up to their eaves. Bush, more fidgety than usual, was hearing a jumble of conflicting reports about the number of refugees in the Convention Center and the whereabouts of two trucks and trailers loaded with water and food. Furious, he interrupted and glared at the camera transmitting his image back to Mississippi. "I know y'all are trying as hard as you can, but it ain't cuttin' it," the Commander in Chief barked. "I wanna know why. We gotta do better."
This was not so much a moment of executive command as one that betrayed Bush's growing sense that his presidency was taking a beating too. A TIME poll conducted last week shows how badly it has been wounded: his overall approval rating has dropped to 42%, his lowest mark since taking office. And while 36% of respondents said they were satisfied with his explanation of why the government was not able to provide relief to hurricane victims sooner, 57% said they were dissatisfied--an ominous result for a politician who banks on his image as a straight shooter.
Longtime Bush watchers say they are not shocked that he missed his moment--one of his most trusted confidants calls him "a better third- and fourth-quarter player," who focuses and delivers when he sees the stakes. What surprised them was that he still appeared to be stutter-stepping in the second week of the crisis, struggling to make up for past lapses instead of taking control with a grand gesture. Just as Katrina exposed the lurking problems of race and poverty, it also revealed the limitations of Bush's rigid, top-down approach to the presidency. "The extremely highly centralized control of the government--the engine of Bush's success--failed him this time," a key adviser said.
The missteps on Katrina came at a crucial moment in Bush's second term, when his top legislative priority at home, Social Security reform, was already on life support and the war in Iraq was becoming a mounting economic and political burden. The Administration that had been determined to defy history and ward off the second-term curse--and early lame-duck status--by controlling the agenda and seizing opportunities appears increasingly at the mercy of events, at home and abroad.
And as if the West Wing were suddenly snakebit, his franchise player, senior adviser and deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove, was on the disabled list for part of last week, working from home after being briefly hospitalized with painful kidney stones.
Bush has always said the Presidency is about doing big things, and a friend who chatted with him one evening in July said he seemed to be craving a fresh mission even though the one he has pursued in Iraq is far from being on a steady footing. "He was looking for the next really important thing to do," the friend said. "You could hear him almost sorting it out to himself. He just sort of figured it would come."