President Bush needs clear goals tonight when he addresses the American people: He must acknowledge the grave errors his administration made after Katrina and promise lessons will be learned and applied before the next disaster.
Tuesday, the president -- facing polls that showed a 54 percent disapproval rating for his handling of the crisis -- said he takes full responsibility for the federal failings on the Gulf Coast. That's a welcome acknowledgment of the place where the buck truly does stop. But there must be more. America needs to know not just what went wrong but why it went wrong, and it needs assurance that -- if nature or terrorists deal this nation another devastating blow -- it won't go so wrong again. He must restore shaken national confidence.
To the extent political connections may have led to the naming of a horse association director as chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the slow response is indeed a failure of the administration Bush heads. To the extent he can improve the situation now, and revamp the agency to deliver on the work its title promises, the president may show he can make effective a federal government many say he distains.
For all that, it's worth noting that the overall federal response includes some outstanding efforts -- the performance of the U.S. Coast Guard chief among them. Those are efforts that a truly responsive federal plan could build on.
A federal review of FEMA, its leadership and its status within the government is critical to efforts to hone America's response. What-went-wrong assessments also ought to look hard at flood-protection funding for the Army Corps of Engineers, and how the Corps and Louisiana officials directed that spending for years when experts repeatedly predicted a disaster.
In tonight's planned talk, Bush should throw his full weight behind a comprehensive review -- and pledge to make the changes it identifies, before America suffers again.