Bush Blew It

A few days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President Bush galvanized a fearful nation by climbing atop the rubble of the World Trade Center, draping his arm across the shoulders of a firefighter and declaring, “The whole world hears you.”

The president’s popularity surged in the aftermath of that disaster, rallying public support and displaying defiance in the face of aggression.

But what Bush has said after Hurricane Katrina, now recognized as the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, has attracted criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike. While his words after 9/11 provided confidence, his statements after the disaster that has befallen New Orleans and other areas have given little solace.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California told reporters Wednesday that Gulf Coast residents were struck by two disasters _ Katrina and the president’s failure to lead.

“Instead of unconscionably blaming others, President Bush must take charge and take responsibility, and must get it right, and that is my concern and the message that I will bring to the president: ‘Mr. President, you should have taken charge and you should have taken responsibility,’ ” she said.

Pelosi recounted a conversation with Bush, during which she called for the resignation of Michael Brown, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency who has been under fire since the outset.

“He said, ‘Why would I do that?’ ” Pelosi said. “I said, ‘Because of all that went wrong, of all that didn’t go right last week.’ And he said, ‘What didn’t go right?’ ”

“Oblivious, in denial, dangerous,” she said.

Christine M. Riordan, who holds the Luther Henderson Chair in Leadership at Texas Christian University’s M.J. Neeley School of Business, said that by his own actions and comments, Bush “has not really helped the people recover from this disaster.”

“During a threat, a leader needs to be visible, show compassion and understanding for what others are facing and also show strength,” Riordan said. “It is important for leaders to get into the trenches and listen, empathize, communicate and support those that are affected by the crisis. A lack of visibility and communication from a leader erodes confidence. High visibility and compassion demonstrate interest, concern and caring on the part of the leader during crisis. Confidence and trust are heightened when a leader is present with those that are affected.”

Bush got off on the wrong foot by heading to Arizona for a speech about Medicaid reform just as the heavy winds hit the Gulf Coast. He took the opportunity to request that everyone pray for the victims, but otherwise kept to his script.

It was a day later that events forced him to abort his extended stay at his Texas ranch and return to Washington. A flyover of the ravaged area produced boilerplate as opposed to the stirring words recited after 9/11.

In later appearances, Bush joked about how he used to go to New Orleans for fun during the freewheeling days of his youth. In Mississippi, he annoyed some observers by noting that Sen. Trent Lott’s home had been destroyed and expressing the desire to sit on the former Republican Senate leader’s porch once it’s rebuilt.

Otherwise, the most noted statement after the tragedy has been that the federal response was “unacceptable.” He also hailed the work of Brown, the roundly criticized FEMA head, telling “Brownie” that he was doing “a heck of a job.”

Public reaction to the president’s performance has been mixed. An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted on Sept. 2 found that 46 percent approve of the manner in which Bush has handled the tragedy, while 47 percent disapprove _ roughly tracking his overall popularity numbers in recent weeks. But the situation hasn’t aided the president’s sagging numbers as the 9/11 attacks did.

Some of the problem might be timing. White House officials note that not only was Bush on vacation, so was Vice President Dick Cheney _ fishing in Wyoming _ and Chief of Staff Andy Card _ resting in Maine. Others were scattered around.

Bush also wasn’t helped by comments from others. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., raised questions almost immediately about the wisdom of rebuilding New Orleans, comments he lost no time retracting. Homeland Security Department Secretary Michael Chertoff told Tim Russert on “Meet the Press” that no one envisioned the New Orleans levees breaking, even though the possibility had been discussed for years.

And then there’s the president’s mother, Barbara Bush, who appeared insensitive to the suffering of residents in her comments.

“What I’m hearing which is sort of scary is that they all want to stay in Texas,” she said. “Everybody is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this, this is working very well for them.”

(Contact Bill Straub at StraubB(at)shns.com)