Page 2 of 2   <      

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)

About 63 percent of Americans disapproved of Bush's handling of Katrina, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted this March.

"This is an event that calcified the criticisms people were having about Bush, made it more personal and had a big impact on how people look at him," said Andrew Kohut, the Pew Center's director.

Frank Newport, the editor in chief of the Gallup Poll, is more skeptical that there was much of an enduring "Katrina effect" on the president, saying Bush's ratings recovered by the end of 2005 before sliding again in 2006.

Katrina was clearly not the only problem facing Bush in 2005. Bush's full-throated push to add private investment accounts to a slimmed-down Social Security system had been rebuffed by his own party. That August, as Bush vacationed in Texas, the administration appeared to cede the debate on Iraq to antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan as she camped outside the president's ranch.

But those events only made Katrina's impact that much more powerful, historians and Republican lawmakers say. "The sort of limited commitment that this president has to using federal power to ameliorate domestic problems registered powerfully in this Katrina episode," said presidential historian Robert Dallek. "It triggered Bush's downturn."

It was not only the slow, ineffectual response to the initial devastation that was responsible for the decline, critics and supporters say, but also the policy initiatives that came later. Urban Democrats and minorities, already prone to dislike Bush, focused on FEMA's botched relief efforts in the early days. But as the White House moved to placate those critics with a shower of financial support, the administration began alienating many Republicans, who wanted to use the disaster to turn the Gulf Coast into a showcase for conservative ideas.

Bush did push through legislation creating tax-favored Gulf Opportunity Zones that offered lucrative tax incentives for businesses to invest and rebuild. But more ambitious tax plans never got off the ground. The most far-reaching school-choice plans were scaled back. The most visible housing program came in the form of hundreds of thousands of government-bought trailers and mobile homes, which former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) predicted would create "ghettos of despair."

And the highest-profile attack on a government regulation -- Bush's suspension of the Davis-Bacon Act's rules on wage rates for federal contractors -- was quickly scrapped in the face of union and Democratic protests.

"Crises create opportunities," said Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.). "This could have been an opportunity to redo the school systems with free-market principles. It was an opportunity to not just hand over contracts to unions at whatever cost. Now, that's spilt water over the levees."

White House aides suggest that this criticism is unfair, noting that millions of dollars have been spent on school vouchers and on helping homeowners rebuild their property. "The city of New Orleans will see their schools come back stronger, and in fact there will be an explosion of charter schools that can help the region come back quickly," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. "Of course we would have liked to do more in many areas, but the president believes the American taxpayer has been generous."

In the political realm, the White House showed an uncharacteristic reluctance to strike back at Democrats and liberal groups that were attacking the administration for its handling of Katrina. Kingston said many conservatives were ready to attack New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, both Democrats, whom they saw as the embodiment of years of incompetence, corruption and cronyism. But the signal from the White House was to hold their fire.

Kingston said all Republicans continue to pay the price for the approach Bush took in the weeks after the hurricane.

"What you ended up with was a lot of people who did not like the administration from the beginning now with the tangible reason they had been looking for for five years," Kingston said. "And on the other side you had his friends, who wanted to circle the wagon, defend the president and take a stand, and instead they were asked just to keep passing the bills."

<       2

© 2006 The Washington Post Company