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Dan Wasserman | Boston Globe

Obama faces his Katrina: What would W do?

– His approval ratings are hitting new depths. His foreign policies have undercut his campaign promise to restore America’s reputation overseas. His own party is in rebellion over his signature piece of health care legislation.

There is no question about it. President Barack has hit a low point of his presidency. There’s even a heated debate as to whether this is the president’s “Katrina moment,” a reference to the point in George W. Bush’s presidency when his failure to quickly respond to the devastation that Hurricane Katrina wreaked on the New Orleans area raised questions about America’s last president’s competence to do the job he had just been re-elected to do.

Defenders of Obama say Katrina is a terrible analogy because of the death and despair the hurricane caused. Critics of the president say it’s a fitting comparison because the timing is so similar, because it has had a similar if not identical effect on poll results, and because it cuts to the question of whether the man is up for the job.

If Obama wants to rebound, he would do well to listen to the critics and take the challenges of this moment to heart in the way members of the Bush team say Bush did. In fact, the Katrina analogy should offer hope and inspiration for Obama.

In the fall of 2005, the mood among the president’s advisers had at that point, according to a top Bush White House official with whom I spoke, reached “a new low.” Bush responded by “making a commitment to change” that ultimately produced a second term rebound only now being fully appreciated for its scope and effectiveness.

Given that Bush’s first term was marked by the debacle of the Iraq war and its effect on America’s relations worldwide, his challenges and arguably his errors were greater than those Obama has to deal with.

But within a year, Bush made effective changes to his team, his strategies in the Mideast, and his overall approach to many foreign and domestic issues. And it was those changes that enabled him to complete what is arguably the most striking second-term turnaround in postwar American history.

Bush managed to rebound in a number of important ways.

First, and perhaps foremost in terms of lessons that Obama ought to heed from how Bush handled his second term, is how the 43rd president re-engineered his cabinet. He didn’t just change who was in top posts, but he changed the way his cabinet worked.

In the year after Katrina, big changes came on both the national security side and the overall White House management side. Bush replaced his capable chief of staff, Andrew Card, with an even stronger successor, Josh Bolten, a brilliant, behind-the-scenes master manager who restored a positive energy to a battered team. Then, that December, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stepped down and was replaced by the man who would later stay on to become Obama’s first secretary of defense, former CIA Director Robert Gates.

The changes resulted in a freer hand for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to focus on restoring American ties with allies worldwide; international initiatives that put U.S. relations with large emerging powers such as China, India and Brazil atop U.S. priorities; successful execution of important aid programs that made Bush policies in Africa the high-water mark for U.S. efforts on that continent (Millennium Challenge Corporation, PEPFAR, etc.); and perhaps most importantly from a public-perception viewpoint a major strategy review of Iraq that resulted in Bush’s January 2007 speech announcing the “surge” in Iraq.

One other change that was of vital importance to Bush’s own second-term “surge” was the appointment of Henry Paulson as Treasury secretary in January 2006. Paulson felt the U.S. economy might be facing a real markets crisis and felt he could make a contribution in fighting it. Paulson’s proved prescient, and a Bush administration that was bookended by great crises responded to the second one – the financial crash of 2008 – far more effectively than to the first, 9/11. Given that the potential negative consequences of the financial crisis were so much greater for so many people than those associated with the 2001 attacks, and given that the actions required by Bush and his team were so much less popular at the time than lashing back at suspected terrorists had been, it’s more likely that the Bush team’s handling of the crisis will ultimately be appreciated by history as one of its signal accomplishments.

Bush’s cool during the crisis, his repeated efforts to raise the spirits of his team members and his willingness to make and actively advocate for tough, politically unpopular actions already hold up well when compared with the responses of other countries such as those of Europe.

No one, least of all anyone in an administration that came in promising a president who was the “un-Bush,” is likely to accept at this point that somehow George W. Bush was a great success as a president. But no one of a fair mind can deny that he was willing to undertake major personnel and policy changes in the wake of his faltering performance after his re-election or that those changes produced some positive results. Obama should take comfort in the fact that despite predictions that Bush was “done” in the aftermath of Katrina, his most productive years were still to come.

But of course, the secret to Bush’s rebound was the degree to which he was able to do two things that Obama appears reluctant to do. One was a much greater willingness to not only change the group of people around him but to seek out and actually embrace different perspectives. The other was his commitment to being an activist player coach among the members of his team. Bush, flawed as he may have been, accepted the lessons of his missteps and acted on them in a way that Obama has yet to do thus far.

This is not, it must be noted, about “rebranding” or “tweaking the message.” Two parallel examples in recent weeks illustrate this. Because the president and his team had failed to pre-sell the Iran deal to our Israeli and Gulf allies prior to nearly concluding it a couple weeks ago, there was a backlash from them that helped fan congressional opposition and threatened to derail the talks. Because they failed to reach out and pre-sell the president’s insurance “fix” to Obamacare, within days there was backlash, several states rejected the fix and matters were made worse. Similar breakdowns in policy development processes whether on Syria or Egypt or fiscal issues on the Hill have all shown that processes are flawed, management is missing, and blocking and tackling is not being done.

Obama, not burdened with the baggage of a disaster like Iraq, presumably can rebound too, perhaps to a greater degree. But not if he is unwilling to accept that he has something to rebound from, and not if he is unwilling to make far greater changes in his core team than he has made to date. He must puncture the bubble he has created around him and be willing to hear what useful criticism he is receiving, and he must empower those around him to do likewise. Only he has the power to determine whether this being his “Katrina” moment means it is a crisis of competency and a nadir in the polls or whether it means this moment is the beginning of the turnaround that he should embrace and that the country and world would welcome.

David Rothkopf is CEO and editor at large of Foreign Policy.

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