For President Bush, a classic political question -- "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" -- must be answered with a resounding "No."
In 2001, within days of 9/11, mass media touted Bush as a walking FDR and hailed him as the nation's visionary leader. The president settled into a jerky rhetorical rhythm that had the Washington press corps tapping its feet.
With major assistance from the news media, Bush struck a pose as the country's protector-in-chief. That was his story, and he was sticking to it.
But now, in the wake of the hurricane, Bush is widely seen as the nation's menace-in-chief.
The media storyline for the cataclysm of 9/11 -- echoing countless narratives from Bush and others in the administration -- was a continuous tale of American virtue in a mortal struggle with its opposite. Few journalists challenged that simplicity, and many of the ones who did ended up facing insinuations (or outright accusations) that they were soft on terrorists.
But now, to the extent that the media storyline for the catastrophe of New Orleans has a villain, it's the Bush administration itself. And White House operatives have less media leverage. Journalists who explore tough questions are unlikely to encounter the accusation of being soft on hurricanes.
As of last week, President Bush's media image as the national protector has been largely replaced by an image of someone whose inexcusable behavior took American lives. Polling indicates that a solid majority of the public blames the federal government for lethally inadequate responses to the hurricane before and after it reached the Gulf coast.
A week after levees collapsed and drowned New Orleans, the president was on a PR offensive. Bush made a somber declaration: "I'll lead an investigation of what went right and what went wrong."
That statement came from the same president who -- as misery and death engulfed southern Louisiana and Mississippi -- was far away at a political fund-raising event, jovially strumming a guitar.
Days later, the media spinners advising Bush obviously want to give the impression that he's engaged with current relief efforts -- and determined to get to the bottom of the government's failures during the hurricane's lead-up and aftermath. But the president's resolute offer to "lead an investigation" of his own administration is impressive only to those who are eager to be impressed. The maneuver is reminiscent of when -- in the midst of a growing scandal a third of a century ago -- President Nixon pledged to get to the bottom of the Watergate break-in.
On the White House propaganda calendar, this week was scheduled to culminate with a blitz of oratory marking the Sept. 11 anniversary. But Hurricane Katrina has rained on President Bush's 9/11 parade, and his militaristic pomp will lose some luster.
Of course Bush is feverishly trying to repair the damage to his image in the wake of the hurricane. But even for a prodigious spinmeister like Karl Rove, that must be a somewhat daunting task.
The actual George W. Bush of today isn't much different than the actual George W. Bush of mid-September 2001. But in the universe of media and public perceptions, they're light years apart.
Norman Solomon is the author of the new book "War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death." For information, go to: www.WarMadeEasy.com