Katrina's Damage Lingers For Bush

But images of him surveying the Katrina-battered Gulf Coast from above on Aug. 31, 2005, on the way back from a vacation on his Texas ranch, contributed to an impression of the president as a disconnected and ineffectual leader.
But images of him surveying the Katrina-battered Gulf Coast from above on Aug. 31, 2005, on the way back from a vacation on his Texas ranch, contributed to an impression of the president as a disconnected and ineffectual leader. (By Paul Morse -- White House Via Getty Images)

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By Jonathan Weisman and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 26, 2006

For Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), three images define George W. Bush's presidency: Bush throwing out the first pitch of the 2001 World Series at Yankee Stadium, Bush with a megaphone atop the rubble of the World Trade Center -- and Bush staring out the window as Air Force One traversed the Gulf Coast thousands of feet above the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

The first two images epitomize strength and resolution, the image the Bush White House likes to cultivate. But in one year's time, the last one -- of the president as aloof, out of touch, even befuddled -- all but erased the memory of the others, according to pollsters, pundits and Republican politicians who say they have suffered in the wake of the president's decline.

From the demise of his Social Security overhaul to the war in Iraq, many factors have contributed to Bush's slide in popularity in the past year. But the winds of Katrina may have been the force that finally wrenched the Bush presidency off its moorings, these observers said.

"That has always been the driving [attribute] of Bush -- his ability to lead -- and Katrina undermined it badly," McHenry said. "He has rebounded in one year's time from what he lost in one week's time." But, he added, "it was a long and arduous climb" -- and it is not complete.

The president will appear Monday and Tuesday on the Gulf Coast to mark the first anniversary of the hurricane. To the White House, the president has a strong story to tell: approval of more than $110 billion in resources for the Gulf region, 12 previous visits to the region by Bush and 82 by members of his Cabinet, the restoration of more than 220 miles of New Orleans's flood walls and levees, the floodproofing of pumping stations, and the addition of floodgates to protect against storm surges.

Bush aides said the president will accept responsibility for the botched federal response while stressing that the government has learned from the Katrina mistakes and promising to see through the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast.

White House counselor Dan Bartlett said it is difficult to separate the impact of Katrina from the Iraq war and the other problems that have pulled down Bush's approval rating. "It was a setback at the time, but it was recoverable and has been," Bartlett said.

In Louisiana and other Gulf Coast states, Bush's efforts have made a difference, both in rebuilding the region and in restoring his credibility, said Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.).

But McCrery and several other Republicans said the year-old images of Bush's overflight aboard Air Force One, his good-natured joshing amid the devastation about college party days on Bourbon Street, and his "heck of a job" commendation of Michael D. Brown, then the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, still linger.

"Outside the real storm, it was a political storm that we all suffered a little damage from," said Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.), a member of the House Republican leadership. "Katrina was not just a break in the levee of the great Crescent City, but it was a break in the levee of political goodwill and the Teflon coating that the administration had been enjoying up to then."

But images of him surveying the Katrina-battered Gulf Coast from above on Aug. 31, 2005, on the way back from a vacation on his Texas ranch, contributed to an impression of the president as a disconnected and ineffectual leader.
But images of him surveying the Katrina-battered Gulf Coast from above on Aug. 31, 2005, on the way back from a vacation on his Texas ranch, contributed to an impression of the president as a disconnected and ineffectual leader.
In the weeks after Katrina, Bush's disapproval rating rose from 48 percent to 52 percent, while the proportion of those who approved of the job he was doing as president fell from 44 percent to 40 percent, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

The proportion of people who saw Bush as a strong and decisive leader stood at 60 percent in late August 2005, according to a Gallup poll. One week and a hurricane later, it was down to 52 percent. By mid-September, it had fallen to 49 percent.


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