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Bush struggles to find the right tone on disaster

President Bush continues to struggle under the widepread perception of a poor response to Hurricane Katrina, with day-to-day appearances that adjust the tone and the remedy.
President Bush Visits Survivors of Hurricane Katrina
President Bush comforts Kim Bassier, left, and Bronwynne Bassier as he tours Howard Avenue in Biloxi, Miss., on Sept. 2.Tim Isbell,tim Isbell / Abaca,THE SUN HERALD
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Bush White House is known for its ability to remain in control of its message and image, sliding out of crises with barely a scratch. Not this time.

Despite day after day of appearances by President Bush aimed at undoing the political damage from a poor response to Hurricane Katrina, the White House has not been able to regain its footing, already shaken by the war in Iraq and its death toll exceeding 1,880.

The administration on Tuesday struggled to deflect calls for an accounting of who was responsible for a hurricane response that even Bush acknowledged was inadequate. There were increasing calls for the resignation or firing of Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“I think it’s clear we’re in damage control now,” said Norman Ornstein, political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute think tank.

It’s a troubling position for Bush, already suffering the lowest approval ratings of his presidency.

The mistakes have come one upon the other.

Series of fumbles
Even as Katrina was bearing down on the Gulf Coast that Sunday night and early Monday, Aug. 28-29, and the national hurricane center was warning of growing danger, the White House didn’t alter the president’s plans to fly from his Texas ranch to the West to promote a new Medicare prescription drug benefit.

By the time Bush landed in Arizona that Monday, the storm was unleashing its fury on Louisiana and Mississippi. The president inserted into his speech only a brief promise of prayers and federal help.

He continued his schedule in California, and he didn’t decide until the next day that he should return to Washington. But it took him another day to get there, as he flew back to Texas to spend another night at his home before leaving for the White House.

Once the president was in Washington, the criticism only intensified.

While a drowned New Orleans descended into lawless misery, Bush delivered remarks from the Rose Garden that were seen as flat and corporate. It was a sharp contrast to the commanding, empathetic president the public rallied around in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

In a television interview, Bush said — mistakenly — that nobody anticipated the breach of the levees in a serious storm.

Even Monday’s trip to the region was a redo, hurriedly arranged by the White House over the weekend after lukewarm response to Bush’s first in-person visit to the Gulf Coast last Friday.

Bush had raised eyebrows on his first trip by, among other things, picking Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss. — instead of the thousands of mostly poor and black storm victims — as an example of loss. “Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott’s house — he’s lost his entire house — there’s going to be a fantastic house. And I’m looking forward to sitting on the porch,” Bush said with a laugh from an airplane hangar in Mobile, Ala.

In the same remarks, Bush gave FEMA chief Brown — the face for many of the inadequate federal response — a hearty endorsement. “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” Bush said.

Later in Biloxi, Miss., Bush tried to comfort two stunned women wandering their neighborhood clutching Hefty bags, looking in vain for something to salvage from the rubble of their home. He kept insisting they could find help at a Salvation Army center down the street, even after another bystander had informed him it had been destroyed.

And at his last stop that day, at the airport outside of New Orleans, Bush lauded the increasingly desperate city as a great town because he used go there and “enjoy myself — occasionally too much.”

Perception problem
Unlike his galvanizing appearance in the rubble of the World Trade Center just days after the 2001 attacks, Bush has stayed far from the epicenter of New Orleans’ suffering. His only foray into the city was to its edges to watch crews plugging one of the breached levees on Friday.

On Monday, he skipped the hardest-hit coastal areas entirely, choosing instead to visit Baton Rouge — a town about 80 miles northwest of New Orleans that sustained no damage. He also went to Poplarville, Miss., to walk the streets of a middle-class neighborhood that seemed to suffer little more than snapped trees, a couple of off-kilter carport roofs and a downed power line or two.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the president avoided New Orleans to stay out of the way of search-and-rescue operations.

“It’s going to be almost impossible to overcome the perception about the president that he didn’t show compassion and didn’t get control of the policy failures,” American University political scientist James Thurber said. “The vivid images that are coming across the television are really destroying his image as a leader.”

White House counselor Dan Bartlett said the president and his aides are unconcerned for now about the unrelenting criticism.

“Emotions are running high. People are tired,” Bartlett said. “If we focused more of our attention on decisions that have already been made, rather than on those before us, there’s potential for making far greater mistakes. ... We really don’t have time to play the political game right now.”