For President Bush, Hurricane Katrina is looking like a political perfect storm. Already confronting mounting doubts about the war in Iraq...

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WASHINGTON — For President Bush, Hurricane Katrina is looking like a political perfect storm.

Already confronting mounting doubts about the war in Iraq and national angst over rising gasoline prices, Bush now faces angry questions about the desperately slow arrival of federal relief along the devastated Gulf Coast.

The president, like many Americans, appeared to grasp the severity of the crisis only gradually. But by week’s end, as he toured the region on foot and by air from Biloxi to New Orleans, he searched for the words to convey the enormity of what he had seen. “It’s as if the entire Gulf Coast were obliterated by the worst kind of weapon you can imagine,” he said, settling on a war-like metaphor.

He appeared galvanized by new purpose, declaring that where the recovery effort “is not working right, we’re going to make it right.”

That’s the kind of leadership Americans expect from their presidents.

But in the first days after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the coast and broken levees inundated New Orleans, Bush’s leadership was found wanting. His political opponents have been especially vocal — predictably, given the nation’s deep divisions.

Still, the country was united in a single question: What took so long?

Katrina is a different kind of crisis for a president already tested by terrorist attacks on American soil and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The sheer scale of the disaster has overwhelmed even the federal government. Bush now faces not only the hurricane’s aftermath, but the public perceptions formed by round-the-clock television coverage — and the political pressures that follow.

“I am saying, ‘Mr. President, whatever you didn’t do yesterday, do it today,”‘ Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, said Friday on Capitol Hill. With his public approval numbers at an anemic 40 percent, Bush must deal with a new problem that feeds his old ones. Hurricane Katrina has spiked gas prices anew and left some Americans wondering if the nation’s military can adequately respond to homeland disasters at the same time it prosecutes a pair of wars abroad.

That includes another major terrorist attack. If the response to Katrina is any indication, “we’re not prepared for the unthinkable,” said Stephen J. Wayne, a presidential scholar at Georgetown University.

Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, put it this way: “For Bush, it’s a manmade political disaster on top of a natural disaster. The Bush administration could not have done much worse, it really couldn’t. They appeared detached and slow to realize the seriousness of the situation.”

But Bush’s strengths were on view as he toured the disaster area, prompting some observers to suggest that he may recover his political footing and can instill a sense of confidence that “there is someone in charge,” said presidential historian Richard Norton Smith.

Bush addressed two pressing concerns:

He rejected the idea that the U.S. missions in Iraq and Afghanistan in any way hampered the military’s ability to join in the response to Katrina. “We’ve got a job to defend this country in the war on terror, and we’ve got a job to bring aid and comfort to the people of the Gulf Coast, and we’ll do both,” Bush said on the Mississippi stop.

And he acknowledged that “we’re going to have a problem this weekend when it comes to gasoline.” He said tapping the strategic petroleum reserve and easing some environmental rules would help limit gas price increases.

Bush is at his best one-on-one, noted Martha Kumar of Towson University, whose expertise is in presidential communications, and that Bush was on display Friday.

He met with mayors, governors and rescue workers but also walked among the hurricane’s distraught victims. He embraced two sobbing women who pressed themselves into his arms in a destroyed Biloxi neighborhood.

“We don’t have anything,” one woman said through her tears.

“I understand,” Bush told her. Sighing deeply, and kissing one woman on the head, he said, “All right, hang in there.”

“People have to believe that the situation is getting under control very, very quickly,” said Karlyn Bowman, who has tracked post-Sept. 11 polls for the American Enterprise Institute.

They are looking to the president for signs that is happening.

The great disasters — the Chicago fire of 1871, the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake — are “remembered in legend less for the horror they caused than for the renewal they sparked,” said Smith.

Bush seemed to be getting at that idea of resilience — a point of pride in the American character — on Friday. “Out of New Orleans,” he said, “is going to come that great city again.”

But “the pictures,” as Smith put it, were at odds with his words. “It’s the pictures,” Smith repeated. “People believe what they see with their own eyes.”

c.2005 Newhouse News Service

J. Scott Orr can be contacted at scott.orr(at)newhouse.com; Delia M. Rios can be contacted at delia.rios(at)newhouse.com