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Even Katrina wasn't "Bush's Katrina," so nothing can be Obama's Katrina

Heck of a job
Heck of a job
Mandel Ngan

Understanding the pile-up of unaccompanied minors crossing the US-Mexico border is hard. Facile political analogies are easy. So suddenly the political world is ablaze with speculation and debate as to whether or not the crisis under way is "Obama's Katrina."

The truth, however, is that not only is the border crisis no Katrina, Katrina itself was no Katrina, at least not in the super-politicized sense in which Katrina analogies are intended. Consider the history of George W. Bush's approval ratings.

Cvfspjk4hesmzts2bc0brg See the Katrina Effect here? Me neither. Indeed, staring at this chart you may realize that you don't even remember when Hurricane Katrina happened. Specifically, an August 22-25 Gallup poll found Bush with a 40 percent approval rating. That number rose to 45 percent in the August 28-30 poll that coincided with the storm (the levees in New Orleans broke on August 29). In the September 8-11 Gallup poll, Bush's approval had ticked up to 46 percent. By the September 16-18 poll it was back down to 40 percent, then by the September 26-28 poll it was at 45 percent.

What's true — and clearly visible from the chart — is that the general Bush trend was steadily downward throughout 2005. But Katrina does not appear to have played any particularly noteworthy role.

If you want to pin Bush's post-reelection change of fortune on anything, the right candidate is Social Security reform. Bush was moderately popular when he won reelection in November of 2004, and retained strong ratings through the lame-duck winter. As his second term began, he pushed for large changes to Social Security. In his post-inaugural State of the Union address he opined that the program "was created decades ago, for a very different era." He noted that a range of Democratic Party officeholders had, over the years, proposed various kinds of benefit cuts. And without endorsing a specific plan, he called for bipartisan action on some form of privatization scheme, arguing that under such a plan "your money will grow, over time, at a greater rate than anything the current system can deliver."

Given Bush's success in his first term in securing substantial Democratic Party votes for a large regressive tax cut, for an invasion of Iraq, and for a bipartisan education overhaul (and his ability to squeak a second large tax cut and a major change to Medicare through congress with the backing of a few Democrats) it wasn't a crazy calculation on his part that this would work.

But it was the wrong calculation.

Democrats adopted a posture of unanimously rejecting full or partial privatization. Bush barnstormed the country in support of privatization, but to no avail. Social Security is incredibly popular, and root-and-branch Democratic opposition solidified partisan hostility to Bush. With no clear legislative path forward available, Republicans fell into bickering over the merits of various different versions of the Social Security reform plan which further eroded Bush's standing. It would be a huge oversimplification to lay responsibility for all of Bush's second term political problems on this, but Social Security privatization was the first big thing Bush tried to do and its failure certainly set the tone for a second term of political impotence.

If Social Security was Bush's real Katrina, we might say the Manchin-Toomey gun control bill was Obama's: an early post-reelection legislative initiative that looked promising at one point, but failed in a way that clarified there was no "mandate" and no real prospect for ambitious further legislating.