Bush's buffeted leadership

The White House is working to repair the damage Katrina dealt to his image as a strong leader.

As New Orleans and the devastated Gulf Coast region look ahead to rebuilding and renewal, so, too, President Bush is digging out from the political damage hurricane Katrina has wreaked on his presidency.

The biggest blow to Bush, personally, may be to his image as a leader - the core quality that gave him high marks for his handling of 9/11 and, eventually, helped him win a second term.

As he ran for reelection last year, polls consistently showed a majority of the public credited him for leadership, even as they disagreed with him on many issues. Now, for the first time, less than half the public (49 percent) say he has "strong leadership qualities," down from 63 percent last year, according to a Newsweek poll last week.

Bush's planned prime-time address to the nation Thursday night, to be delivered from New Orleans, will mark the latest in a series of steps aimed at moving away from the early finger-pointing and appearance of detachment, and toward a can-do approach.

The president was to announce an unprecedented federal commitment to rebuilding the flood zone, with a price tag that aides say could top $200 billion. And Friday Bush will make remarks at Washington's National Cathedral as part of his proclaimed National Day of Prayer and Remembrance for the Victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Both speeches follow the president's "buck stops here" moment on Tuesday, when he declared, "To the extent the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility."

One lesson for Bush, says presidential scholar Martha Joynt Kumar, is "that [you] can get it right as a leader for four years, and that doesn't guarantee you're going to continue to get it right.

"You have to be poised on your toes, and you just can't get comfortable with the system you have," says Professor Kumar, a senior fellow at the Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland. "Different conditions can come up that test your system. [Katrina] certainly tested it in a different way."

A hallmark of Bush's system is planning, in contrast with President Clinton's more chaotic style that nevertheless lent itself to sharp pivots in focus. The day after Katrina hit, Bush stuck with his plan to deliver a speech in San Diego marking the anniversary of VJ Day - and seeking to boost support for the Iraq war - before cutting his vacation short and heading back to Washington the next day.

"This man is an incredible planner," says Carolyn Thompson, a Chicago-based training consultant and co-author of a book on Bush's leadership. "He is not a detail person, but he surrounds himself with people who gather details and feed them to him.... Once everything's in place, then they go."

She's withholding judgment on the White House's initial response to Katrina, stressing that "this is a very closed-mouthed White House" and that, with time, more may be learned about the factors that fed into a stretch that, for now, "looks ugly."

What is known is that Bush treasures his time at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and that while he has all the access to aides and information there that he would have in Washington, the human dynamic is different. Getting information from multiperson videoconferences, the system in Crawford, is different from the way it works at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where a range of people can come through and make their points in meetings.

"You can get ahead of things a little better at the White House," says Professor Kumar, who often observes White House press operations in person.

Bush is also famous for not paying close attention to media reports, another point that may have delayed a full understanding of the magnitude of Gulf Coast devastation, and the 9/11-level of leadership required.

Even after arriving in the region, comments such as those making light of youthful time spent there and his "attaboy" gesture to Michael Brown, now resigned head as head of federal emergency management, showed he was still behind the curve.

By this week, when Bush made his qualified statement of responsibility - a rare moment for a president who has been loath to admit any failings - analysts agreed that he finally had it right. Bush's taking of responsibility "suggests he's finding his voice," says Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar and professor emeritus at Princeton University.

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