A few days shy of the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, President Bush promised that the federal government “will work with the state and local authorities to get the help to them as quickly as possible.”

“Them” he defined as “the people down there that still need help.”

The previous day, the United Nations issued a frightening report based on the work of more than 400 scientists warning that the world’s need for water may double in 50 years although two billion people already struggle to meet their daily water needs. In the past 50 years, acreage of agricultural under irrigation has tripled, but in many regions, such as overpopulated China and India, there is no more available water.

In other words, the desperate scramble for costly water could quickly resemble the frantic scramble for costly oil.

Just about anybody who has driven or drives through large U.S. cities physically shudders at the growing traffic congestion. The nation’s capital is searching for answers to increasing gridlock and is finding none that don’t cost a fortune or require years of non-existent planning and political consensus.

Reports by the Army Corps of Engineers warn of the rapidly deteriorating physical state of the nation’s bridges, ports, dams and other forms of “infrastructure.” A few influential legislators get money siphoned off for projects in their districts, but thousands of crumbling structures are simply left unfixed.

The nation that built a coast-to-coast highway system is unable to fix its potholes.

The nation that sent man to the moon can’t control its borders.

The nation that built some of the world’s finest dams can’t handle one of the most catastrophic droughts in its history.

The nation that set up the world’s best public school system can’t teach Johnny and Jane to read or write or calculate math problems.

The nation that built a superpower extracting black gold from the earth now can’t control its energy gluttony.

Instead, we are sweating over Iran’s intentions, Iraq’s infrastructure, North Korea’s intentions, Iraq’s chaos, France’s intentions, Hezbollah’s arms, Israel’s intentions, China’s growing power, the U.N.’s intentions.

Isolationism (sticking one’s head in the sand) isn’t the answer, but neither is trying to solve everyone else’s problems while ignoring most of our own.

At his Aug. 21 press conference, Bush signaled he will make a campaign issue out of the frustration of Democrats demanding answers to the debacle in Iraq. He accuses his political enemies of ignoring the national security threat to this country, which he says winding down in Iraq would exacerbate.

Bush acknowledged the American public is weary of the war in Iraq, that the nation’s “psyche” is under strain and that the exhausting, amorphous war on terror has had few milestones. Yet Bush hasn’t spoken the name of Osama bin Laden out loud for ages. In the president’s mind, terrorism and Iraqi insurgents are one and the same.

Bush denies that his administration is in any way culpable for the scandalous abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the denial of legal rights to those held at Guantanamo or the overstepping of constitutional rights of American citizens. In his mind, that has nothing to do with the contempt by millions who see the U.S. presence in Iraq not as a liberation force, but as an invasion by an occupying army.

When Bush says “bring it on” these days, he means that he wants to duke it out with Democrats, which he does far better than quelling terrorists.

Those who want to “leave Iraq before the job is done,” the president said, are “wrong.” But he has failed for months to provide an idea of when the job will be done, how it will be done, how we will know the job is done or what the cost will be.

Bush has given up on his plan to “save” Social Security, let alone Medicare. He insists we have to believe that the economy is in great shape although even the housing industry is now in a slump, wages are stagnant and the job picture is dismal. He denies that global warming is real. His administration didn’t even comment on the dire U.N. forecast about water shortages.

We’re entering a season of anniversaries: Five years since 9/11; one year since Katrina.

Not to worry, says a blithe Bush. If Americans keep his party in power in November (and ostracize the “Democrat Party”), the mission at last will be accomplished in Iraq, new jobs will sprout, John and Jane will prosper, taxes will plummet and peace and democracy will break out in the Middle East, although war with Iran may be on the horizon.

And the feds finally will ride in to help the forgotten victims of Katrina. But don’t, on pain of being a traitor, pester the poor man with demands for details.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)