Above it all

President George W. Bush has been criticized for being inaccessible and on vacation. The destruction brought to New Orleans and large stretches of the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina earlier this week proved once again that such criticism is more than justified.

Part of New Orleans lies 20 feet below sea level, a fact that was widely broadcast to persuade residents of the city to evacuate. The worst-case scenario spun on television news shows and in various newspaper reports was that the levee system protecting the city would fail, which is precisely what happened.

Even if the president had not paid attention to the media coverage, he cannot deny having knowledge of this fact. He was responsible for cuts to the funding for the levee and pump system in 2003. The money allotted for such projects – so the reasoning at the time – was needed for the so-called War on Terror and in Iraq.

The destruction in New Orleans may not be a direct result of the president’s actions, but the cut in funding for such an essential system hardly improved an already-dire situation.

Even though he must have known that the looming situation was not only going to be bad but could also quickly turn catastrophic, Bush continued a five-week vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. One of the few photos released of the president showed him lounging in front of a TV set while parts of the nation were being pummeled by torrential rain and torn to shreds by winds exceeding 150 mph – hardly an image that inspired trust in his leadership skills.

Before the storm hit, some well-chosen words from the president likely would have helped convince several of those that did not evacuate the area to do so. Instead, the president held a speech at an event celebrating the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, spoke at an event touting his Medicare reforms and played several rounds of golf.

With all due respect to those that fought in WWII, weren’t there more pressing matters the president had to attend to? We will never know if Bush’s absence indeed caused oversights in crisis planning, but once again the imagery created did not inspire trust and was eerily reminiscent of a president that was surprised by 9/11 during a similar vacation.

The destruction caused by Katrina has not been completely assessed yet. Reports that emergency responders were ignoring dead bodies floating in the flooded streets in order to focus on those that were stranded paint a bleak picture of the situation. The estimation of New Orleans’ mayor that the death toll may very well be in the thousands and the city will be closed for weeks – if not months – also suggests a loss of life on a massive scale.

Bush should have given comfort to those affected by making a personal appearance as he did when hurricanes hit Florida last year (Could it be that 2004 was an election year?) or at least not apparently ignore the matter until it was too late.

That the president ignored such a photo opportunity is rather out of character. Past photo ops ranged from Bush clearing brush at the Crawford Ranch that was built mere months before the presidential election in 2000, to him landing dramatically on an aircraft carrier, all carefully orchestrated to make the president appear “hands on.”

So why waste an opportunity that would have raised his approval rating, demonstrated leadership skills and bring comfort to those that have been affected by the storm?

Instead the president “assessed” the damage from aboard Air Force One from an altitude of 3,000 feet. White House Spokesman Scott McClellan later told reporters the president had said, “It’s devastating. It’s got to be doubly devastating on the ground.”

The imagery could not have been more succinct: The president was literally above it all and sat in an air-conditioned airplane while his constituents needed their president. One can only imagine what Air Force One must have looked like for those stuck on rooftops awaiting rescue.

Given how Bush has behaved in response to Katrina, it is understandable that many are questioning the president’s leadership skills. Before the hurricane his approval ratings were hovering barely above the 40 percent mark, a historic low even for Bush. Now this number is likely to go down even more.

Sebastian Meyer is a seniormajoring in geographyand the Oracle Opinion Editor.column@sebimeyer.com