Bush Team Approaches Katrina Trip With Care

Times Staff Writer

As Hurricane Katrina approached the Gulf Coast a year ago this weekend, President Bush already was beset by growing negative impressions of his presidency. Now, as the first anniversary of the storm arrives, he faces a new challenge: how to mark that moment without reinvigorating the questions it raised about his competency.

Bush is planning to spend much of Monday and Tuesday in Mississippi and Louisiana, visiting regions that were devastated by the winds and floods that accompanied the storm.

His goal, said White House Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino, is to “reflect on the many people who died,” as well as on those who rescued others. He will examine “how America opened up its arms and wallets” to care for the survivors.


But in the view of administration officials, their advisors and others, the question of how Bush should approach the anniversary is a difficult one. Speechwriters must craft presidential remarks that recognize devastation and recovery, but that also show an awareness of government failures in responding. Staffers must find locations for his visit that demonstrate progress but do not minimize problems and mistakes.

The White House has begun sounding the themes of Bush’s Gulf visit, emphasizing that progress has been made, but that perseverance is necessary because rebuilding will take years to complete. The president delivered such a message last week when he met in the Oval Office with Rockey Vacarella, whose home in Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish was destroyed by the storm. Bush’s weekly radio address this morning is likely to echo those themes.

Through multiple events, Bush plans to raise the lessons learned in the aftermath of the storm and the federal response, and the continuing challenges, Perino said. She said he would express appreciation for the resolve demonstrated by local residents and a commitment to continue the federal effort as long as required.

But a danger for Bush is that the more he focuses publicly on the storm and its aftermath, the more he risks reminding voters that the delay in the federal response began to solidify the negative impressions of his presidency that had been forming earlier in 2005.

In the storm’s wake, two-thirds of those surveyed by the Washington-based Pew Research Center said Bush could have acted more quickly. A month later, his personal favorability rating -- a measurement separate from his job approval -- dropped below 50% for the first time.

“What Katrina did was shed a very negative light on him at a time when people had developed a lot of doubt about his competence, and he still carries the negative legacy of that,” said the center’s director, Andrew Kohut.

Now, Kohut said in a telephone interview, the administration faces “a public relations moment.”

“But I wouldn’t expect it will change attitudes about Bush, no matter what they do,” Kohut said. “It revives a low point for him, not a strong point for him.”

Drawing on findings such as those highlighted by the Pew surveys, the Democratic National Committee said Friday that the White House was embarking on “a public relations offensive designed to paper over” its Katrina shortcomings.

But Donna Brazile, who grew up in New Orleans and ran Al Gore’s presidential campaign against Bush in 2000, has consulted with the White House over the past year about the recovery in New Orleans. She said the president “has chosen the most respectful way to communicate this anniversary,” turning it into “a moment of reflection, a moment of remembrance.”

Preliminary White House plans have Bush delivering a speech Monday in Mississippi and Tuesday in New Orleans.

In addition, he will take part in an ecumenical worship service Tuesday morning, when bells are to peal across the city to mark the breaching of the levees. Bush will speak at a roundtable on recovery later Tuesday and is likely to make a number of stops without announcement, much as he did on earlier visits, to speak informally with those who lived through the storm.

The trip opens four days of travel on Bush’s schedule next week. He also is scheduled to visit Arkansas, Tennessee and Utah, and spend a night at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. This weekend, he is in the midst of a four-day holiday at his parents’ summer home, making up a visit that he canceled after Katrina.

Bush has made 11 trips to the stricken Gulf Coast in the last year.

“He’ll see signs of progress and signs of despair,” Brazile said. “They’re not just focusing on the positive or trying to toot their horn and focus on the money they have committed.”

She said the White House was considering at least three sites for Bush to visit, including at least one in New Orleans’ devastated Lower 9th Ward.