Bush and team fumble PR ball after the storm

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Slammed for a slow, inadequate rescue effort following Hurricane Katrina, the Bush administration is now being lambasted for failing to demonstrate clear leadership in its post-tragedy public relations.

Pollsters, PR managers and political experts suggest that the kind of strong image presented by the president and his team in the wake of 9/11-most famously when the president was filmed and photographed using a bullhorn to talk to rescuers at Ground Zero-was sorely missing from the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina.

"Images matter. Sometimes they reinforce or create the image of a leader," said Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "The bullhorn after 9/11 reinforced an image of someone who started out a little slowly, but was stepping up, and it reverberated a long time.

"Now there is a different set of images: confusion ... indifference ... denial of reality. It's got to shake in some ways the confidence in what has been the president's greatest strength-his administrative capability."

Robert Dilenschneider, founder and principal of the Dilenschneider Group, said that what was needed was a demonstration of the president taking charge: "He could have gone to the Superdome, said he wanted to enlist the very best minds in America to help in rebuilding, talked about retraining and established a blue-ribbon panel to help and invited leaders to come to the White House," he said.

Mr. Bush did view the disaster area. First he did a low-altitude fly-over Aug. 31 on Air Force One, two days after the hurricane hit. He returned Sept. 2 to actually visit.

Logistical and security concerns may have delayed the visit, or it may have been-as analysts and politicians from both sides of the house have suggested-that it was seen as too risky to have pictures of a presidential visit juxtaposed with images of people seeking aid, and stories about a tardy response to the crisis.

Some of Mr. Bush's top advisers were out of pocket at the beginning of the period. By the start of the Labor Day weekend, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett were managing some of the White House response, bringing in help from former campaign aides and quietly shifting blame to local and state officials.

Deep disappointment

Frank Luntz, a pollster who heads Luntz Maslansky Strategic Research, said his focus groups have shown Americans feel "deep disappointment" about the way the relief was handled and added that the Federal Emergency Management Agency "is seen as almost as dirty an acronym as IRS."

And while two days after the storm, a majority of Americans approved of Mr. Bush's response, according to CBS News polls, a later poll showed that only 38% approved and 58% disapproved.

"Initially, it's always easy to blame the administration," said Sig Rogich, head of Rogich Communication. "As the days go on, it will become apparent that the president acted as quickly as he could act and there is enough blame to go around."

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