Bush revisits Katrina country

On Katrina's first anniversary – and near 9/11's fifth – the president highlights progress and acknowledges challenges.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It may be an accident of the calendar that two major anniversaries are taking place in rapid succession: the one-year mark of hurricane Katrina and the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

But for President Bush, the stocktaking and revisiting that accompany each present both a blessing and a burden, particularly in the supercharged political atmosphere of the fall midterm campaign. The original events produced two of the iconic images of the Bush presidency – one positive, one negative – and the challenge for him now is to build on what the public sees as his administration's biggest strength, fighting terrorism.

The positive image comes from the aftermath of 9/11, when Mr. Bush stood at ground zero, grabbed a bullhorn, and addressed the crowd. Four years later, the picture of Bush surveying Katrina's devastation from Air Force One, several thousand feet up, presented an image of remoteness.

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Bush's public-approval ratings have yet to recover.

"Even brilliant and genuine photo ops like 'bullhorn' have a half-life," says Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar at Princeton University in New Jersey. "9/11 is still a political plus [for Bush], as horrible as it was, but it's not one you can draw on like some kind of annuity."

And so the president finds himself, a year after hurricane Katrina, touring the Gulf Coast and engaging in a campaign, of sorts, to demonstrate the federal government's continued commitment to the region.

The White House reports this is his 13th visit to the region since Katrina hit, and his first in three months. But it is the most scrutinized since his first, coming as it does amid the media's saturation coverage of the anniversary. Competing for air time are legions of Democratic politicians also touring the region, including the party leaders of both houses of Congress and 24 other Democratic House members.

The narrative that Bush seeks to present is one of progress and hope, with a cleareyed acknowledgment of reality. Tuesday morning, he stopped for breakfast at Betsy's Pancake House in New Orleans – along with Mayor Ray Nagin and Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, commander of the Katrina task force – and worked the crowd.

According to the press pool report, as he tried to negotiate his way between tables, he engaged in some banter with a waitress.

"Mr. President, are you going to turn your back on me?" asked Joyce Labruzzo.

"No, ma'am," Bush said, with a laugh and a pause. "Not again."

The day before, the president did not pretend to have a definitive answer to persistent questions on how long it will take to rebuild the Gulf region. "It's an anniversary, but it's not an end. Frankly, it's just a beginning," Bush said, adding that it would take "years, not months" to complete the recovery.

The Bush White House also followed its familiar pattern of issuing reams of statistics – money committed by Congress ($110 billion, of which $77 billion has been released to the states and $44 billion has been spent), percentage of dry debris cleared away (from Mississippi, 98 percent), money spent to repair and rebuild highways and bridges in Louisiana and Mississippi ($2 billion).

Congressional Democrats, and liberal interest groups, have responded with their own reports and statistics, presenting a less positive picture.

At least one congressional panel – the Senate's Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight and Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia – sought to present a bipartisan picture of where Katrina recovery stands one year later.

In a joint statement, the chairman and ranking member of the subcommittee pointed to the lack of preparedness at all levels of government that the storm exposed, then highlighted "examples of quick-thinking, results-focused federal employees who demonstrated that the federal government has the capabilities for an effective response."

What Bush can do is cut his losses and respond to the American public's continuing belief in a strong federal role at a time of major disaster, says independent pollster John Zogby. "We have a new poll that shows that, despite a negative job rating for the federal government in general, Americans still believe the federal government must show leadership," he says.

The Bush administration's challenge around the 9/11 anniversary will be to maintain its positive public assessment in fighting the war on terror while not allowing the unpopular Iraq war to drag those numbers down. The administration has sought to boost flagging support for the war by declaring Iraq to be a central front in the war on terror, but there's always a danger that the reverse happens: that support for its handling of the terror threat is dragged down by Iraq.

The most recent polls show Bush in the 49 to 55 percent range of support for his handling of terrorism, still his top issue. But the polls that showed him getting a small boost from the recent reports of a foiled plot in Britain to blow up airliners now show that that boost has subsided.

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