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Katrina underscores Bush's isolated style of management

WASHINGTON—As President Bush flew last week to the Gulf Coast for his second post-Katrina visit, an aide said the trip reflected Bush's usual routine of "seeing as much as possible and getting information from different places."

Not quite.

Bush did not visit with any angry evacuees in New Orleans. As Katrina approached, Bush and his top aides spent days apparently unaware that New Orleans might be flooded—despite many warnings, some from inside his own administration. Afterwards, he heaped praise on officials responsible for the slow and initially disorganized disaster-relief efforts. His aides dismiss demands that Bush hold someone accountable for failure, saying that's merely a distracting "blame game."

None of this should be a surprise. Bush has a long record of avoiding critics, rewarding loyalty even in the face of failure and shunning—even punishing—those who disagree with him. It's a management style that shapes how he governs—disdaining compromise with Democrats in Congress, for example—and one that brushes off whole sectors of the American electorate.

That could come back to haunt him, as is now evident in the two problems—Iraq and Katrina—that together have sent his approval ratings to the lowest levels of his presidency and threaten his second-term agenda.

His style of isolating himself from unwelcome voices pleases his core supporters, who don't want him to compromise, but it sacrifices the broader public appeal that helped Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton weather second-term setbacks. One new poll, from the independent Pew Research Center, suggests he is losing support even from Republicans and conservatives.

To Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., the Bush administration's response to Katrina suggested "a real sense of arrogance. Loyalty and never admitting a mistake matters more than the truth. It has a Nixon feel to me."

Analyst Andrew Sullivan, who writes an idiosyncratic but often conservative Weblog, thinks Katrina unmasked Bush's weakness as an executive.

"I must say that the Katrina response does help me better understand the situation in Iraq," Sullivan said. "The best bet is that the president doesn't actually know what's happening there, is cocooned from reality, has no one in his high-level staff able to tell him what's actually happening, and has created a culture of denial and loyalty that makes fixing mistakes or holding people accountable all but impossible."

On Friday, Bush did strip Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown of responsibility for relief efforts—but not of his job—a week after he'd praised Brown for "doing a heckuva job" and stuck by him while aides and allies tried to deflect criticism to Louisiana officials, most of them Democrats.

Bush allies insist he is engaged and pressing the government to fix all hurricane-related problems. But the public isn't much impressed, judging by his plummeting polls. One new survey by independent pollster John Zogby shows Bush would lose a hypothetical election to every modern president, including the much-maligned Jimmy Carter.

Bush's isolated management style is one factor hurting him. While his decision-making is usually cloaked in secrecy, the hurricane crisis showed some characteristic traits.

Denial of unpleasant realities, for example. On Sept. 1 Bush contended that no one could have foreseen that New Orleans might be flooded: "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."

Actually, a lot of people saw it coming. Three years ago, The New Orleans Times-Picayune published a lengthy examination of how likely that scenario was, and it got wide attention. In fact, Bush's own administration participated in a disaster drill for almost exactly this kind of catastrophe.

Bush himself has admitted in the past that he does not reach far for information.

"I glance at the headlines," Bush told Fox News in September 2003, but "I rarely read the stories, and get briefed by people who ... probably read the news themselves ... And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what's happening in the world."

Inside his administration, dissenting views are often stifled, and dissidents punished.

In 2002, the administration fired the head of the Army Corps Engineers after he continued to advocate spending increases for flood control after he'd been overruled. Michael Parker, a former Republican congressman from Mississippi, wanted a 40 percent spending increase, while Bush wanted a 10 percent cut.

In another example, the administration marginalized the Army chief of staff after he told Congress many more troops would be needed to secure Iraq. The administration called Gen. Eric K. Shinseki's views "wildly off the mark" and leaked word of his replacement 15 months before his retirement date, turning him into a lame duck.

When Bush convened an economic summit in 2002, then-Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill later told writer Ron Suskind, the White House wanted to hear only from people who already supported Bush policies.

"A carefully vetted group of more than 240 executives, economists, and even a few labor leaders was being assembled," Suskind wrote. "They'd seem diverse and independent to the untrained eye. In fact, nearly every one would be a Bush supporter and many were major fundraisers. Attendance was, in a way, a reward for support."

While Bush likes to be surrounded by friendly faces, he avoids frowning ones. Since Katrina hit, Bush visited the Gulf Coast twice, but both times avoided angry evacuees—ostensibly so he wouldn't interfere with relief operations.

Some veteran Bush-watchers are skeptical of that White House explanation.

"They didn't want anything to be on TV showing a bunch of angry people hollering at the president," said George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University. "It would not have been a favorable scene unless he could handle it well, which he can't. Clinton could. He would be down there feeling their pain. But Bush can't."

As Edwards noted, many presidents have avoided that kind of public dressing down, but Bush doesn't just shun confrontation, he also avoids reaching out to those who disagree.

When Bush embarked on a 60-city campaign-style tour earlier this year to pitch partly privatizing Social Security, he spoke only to pre-screened audiences of friendly faces.

In Denver last March, three people were ejected from a Social Security townhall meeting because their car bore an anti-Iraq War bumper sticker. In Fargo, N.D., local Republicans prepared a blacklist to ban more than three dozen residents from Bush's venue.

Coincidentally, Bush's Social Security pitch steadily lost public support.

The president also has refused to speak to two major groups that represent millions of Americans, but have criticized him.

After one brief phone conversation in 2001, Bush has never met with the president of the AFL-CIO. He is the only president in the last half century who has not.

And Bush has never addressed the NAACP as president. "You've heard the rhetoric and the names they've called me," he once explained.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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