Hurricane Katrina Left a Mark on George W. Bush’s Presidency

The botching of hurricane relief will affect Bush's legacy.

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He is one of the most controversial figures in American life. And, as he approaches the end of his presidency, George W. Bush has finally joined the raging national debate about his legacy. In recent interviews and public statements, Bush has been more contemplative and revealing than ever as he assesses his eight years in office, attempts to lift his public image out of the trough, and shapes perceptions of his era. In this series, U.S. News reviews the Bush presidency from the beginning in 2001with a special focus on five of his most fateful decisions, including going to war in Iraq and, more recently, approving a huge bailout of the financial industry.

Botching Katrina. It was a disaster at every level. But in political terms, the government's failure to respond effectively to Hurricane Katrina in the late summer of 2005 was Bush's biggest setback at home. "Katrina showed he is incompetent," says Howard Dean, outgoing chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "Before Katrina, everyone, including America's friends and enemies, believed if something awful happened in the world, you could call in the Americans and they'd fix it." The government response to the hurricane, which devastated New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast, ruined that reputation, Dean argues.

Bush seemed slow off the mark as millions of people suffered, and he created a lasting image of isolation when the White House released photos of him, a solitary figure in his cushy seat, looking out a window on Marine One at the hurricane devastation far below. He also made a huge mistake when he praised Michael Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with a now infamous attaboy—"Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job"—even though the agency was botching the disaster response, adding to the impression that Bush was out of touch.

White House advisers say the blame for the poor Katrina response must be shared by the federal, state, and local governments, especially in dealing with the hurricane-related problems in New Orleans. Bush defenders add that he was correct not to visit the disaster sites immediately because to do so would have greatly complicated the relief efforts on the ground.

More substantively, Bush refrained from having the federal government immediately take over the relief effort even when it became clear that the state and local governments in Louisiana were not up to the job. His aides say Bush was guided here by his experience as governor of Texas and his belief that such matters are best left to lower-level officials. "For him, it was a question of usurpation of power," says a former senior adviser. But his failure to act while thousands of desperate people, unable to find food or water, were appealing for help on national television erased his image as an effective decision maker.