The Empathetic Presidency Is Back

Bill Scher

As President Bush touched down in devastated Greensburg, Kan., on Wednesday, I thought back to April 2001, when a white policeman killed a 19-year old black man in Cincinatti, sparking riots.

There was no presidential visit to Cincinnati, or even extended remarks, to help heal racial tensions. And The Washington Post was struck by the shift in presidential attitude:

This week’s news demonstrated anew a fact that Bush has made clear over and over since taking office: The Empathetic Presidency is over…

…The more reserved approach, White House officials say, is both an expression of this president’s personal values as well as a decision by him and his political strategists about how to best use the White House platform.

“The president recognizes that from time to time there will be emotional and volatile events; he does not believe that politicians should seek them out and insert themselves in them,” White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said yesterday…

…Any unexpected news event must cross a high threshhold before drawing the attention of this White House, which places a premium on planning and strict adherence to a daily message.

In other words, dealing with the “unexpected” (also known as “real problems”) would get in the way of pursuing pre-cooked conservative agendas.

But this logic blew up in their face after Bush’s failure to respond quickly to Katrina. Now, unexpected events like the Greensburg tornado pose a far more direct threat to their conservative plans.

And so, hours after the Kansas governor expressed frustration that so much National Guard equipment is half a world away in Iraq, Bush announced he would visit Greensburg and “insert” himself in the story.

With disasters such as in Greensburg, the ramifications of failed conservative policy choices are becoming clearer to voters.

Attempting the permanent occupation of a foreign land without raising taxes and reinstating the draft may lessen the risk of domestic political backlash, and avoid having to fully explain your foreign policy goals to the public. But such reckless governance depletes your resources and eventually catches up with you.

Since the White House doesn’t want you making such connections, Bush needs to “insert” himself in the story and try to control it.

A public expression of empathy is fine, if it’s backed by changes in policy to replenish our dwindling Guard resources and prevent an even larger disaster. But this Empathetic Presidency is all for show.

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