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A year later, Katrina haunts Bush in polling

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(CNN) -- His administration's response to Hurricane Katrina continues to weigh on President Bush in nationwide polling, a year after the killer storm slammed into the Gulf Coast.

Despite repeated visits to the hardest-hit areas, Bush has not been able to shake the stinging criticism, including from a Republican congressional report that labeled response at all levels of government as "dismal."

Bush's approval ratings tumbled as his administration's response to the disaster stumbled. (Poll results)

According to a CNN poll released Monday, 34 percent of those polled approve of how the president handled the storm's aftermath. That is down 6 percentage points from a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll in September 2005. Sixty-four percent in the new poll said they disapprove, an increase of 9 percentage points from the 2005 survey.

Fewer poll respondents than in 2005 see Bush as a "strong and decisive leader" -- 51 percent this month compared with 60 percent in 2005.

The latest poll, conducted August 18-20 by Opinion Research Corporation, surveyed 1,003 adults and had a sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, acknowledged that Bush is still paying a price for the events of a year ago.

"Katrina was a clear blow to the president because it undermined his well-deserved reputation for competence and compassion," said Collins, who described Bush's response as "hesitant and halting when it should have been crisp and competent."

What made Katrina's punch even more painful was its timing, said Andrew Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for People and the Press. It came just as Americans were turning increasingly against the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

"As people become demoralized and negative about a political leader when something like Katrina comes along, it reinforces and cements, crystallizes a negative image," Kohut said.

Finger-pointing at state, local officials

But Bush supporters, such as former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, suggest the president was merely a victim of circumstances.

"Some of the frustration that I experienced in the White House was that people didn't recognize that the president's hands were tied frequently during the response to Hurricane Katrina by a relatively weak response by the state and local governments," Card said.

Bush was criticized immediately after the disaster when he chose not to view storm damage from the ground but opted to observe from aboard Air Force One.

Supporters said pictures of Bush looking down from the aircraft painted a distorted picture of the president, who believed visiting the disaster area needlessly would drain police and other resources from critical search and rescue efforts.

Another poll conducted August 18-20 by Opinion Research Corporation suggests that Americans' faith in the rebuilding of New Orleans, Louisiana, is tepid.

Sixty percent of respondents said the Crescent City can never recover completely and 83 percent of those polled said New Orleans is not prepared for another hurricane.

However, 53 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with the progress made so far in rebuilding the city, and 57 percent said even the areas below sea level should be rebuilt in some fashion.

Acknowledgment of failures

Both Congress and Bush have acknowledged some level of government responsibility for failures that left thousands stranded for days in the hurricane zone, many without food, water or medicine.

In February, a Republican House panel slammed Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff for waiting until two days after Katrina hit to activate a national response plan. It also criticized the appointment of Michael Brown, then director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to lead the federal response, even though he was not trained to take on that role.

The report also said Bush did not receive adequate advice and counsel from disaster officials. The panel concluded that "earlier presidential involvement might have resulted in a more effective response."

In a September 15 televised address to the nation from New Orleans, Bush acknowledged that "the system at every level of government was not well-coordinated and was overwhelmed in the first few days."

"A challenge on this scale requires greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces," he said.

CNN's John King contributed to this report.


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Thirty-four percent of those polled approve of how President Bush handled Katrina's aftermath.

SPECIAL REPORT

• Rebuilding: Vital signs
• Gallery: Landmarks over time
• Storm & Flood: Making history
• I-Report: Share your photos
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