WASHINGTON — Almost two months after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast and a month after promising in a nationally televised speech to help rebuild the region "quickly," President Bush has settled on a cautious, piecemeal approach that even many members of his own party fear will stall reconstruction and sow economic disarray.
Bush has made highly publicized trips to Louisiana and Mississippi on average of once a week since the storm, but the administration has yet to introduce legislation for two of the three proposals the president highlighted during his September speech from New Orleans.
In the case of the third proposal, $5,000 accounts to help workers left unemployed by the hurricane, an administration-drafted House bill would provide aid for fewer than a quarter of the jobless.
Despite mounting evidence that Washington is having trouble putting to use most of the $62 billion in emergency funds approved by Congress so far, the president has resisted appointing a recovery coordinator or further detailing his vision of how to tackle rebuilding. In interviews last week, he explained that he wanted state and local officials to act first.
"I recognize there's an attitude in Washington that says, 'We know better than the local people.' That's just not the attitude I have," Bush told NBC's "Today" show.
Bush's cautiousness appears to be partly a response to some conservatives' clamor for federal budget cuts to offset aid to the Gulf Coast.
In addition, the scale and complexity of reconstruction pose special challenges for an administration that firmly favors market mechanisms over government action, at least domestically.
With the immediate crisis past, administration officials may be hoping that state and local efforts -- and the free market -- will relieve them of the thorniest decisions, as well as a substantial chunk of the estimated $200-billion price tag for the region's revival.
However, a variety of prominent Republicans warn that the president's approach is a recipe for trouble.
"So far, all we've done is shovel money out the door to meet the humanitarian needs," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). "But henceforth, we've got to be very careful how we spend the money, and that means we're going to need a plan and somebody in charge."
A former Cabinet member had similar concerns.
"With all due respect to the president, things are not going to bubble up from the bottom," said Jack Kemp, who was Housing and Urban Development secretary under President George H.W. Bush. "There has to be some federal leadership here."
Without clear signals from Washington, some reconstruction decisions are essentially being made on autopilot, raising the risk that the region and the nation will repeat past mistakes.
In New Orleans, for example, the Army Corps of Engineers last week put an estimated $400 million of work out to bid to bring the area's levee and canal system back to its pre-Katrina condition. Corps officials said the work was necessary to secure the city while more extensive protections were designed.
The corps' plans include reviving a large, and largely unused, canal known as "Mr. Go" -- the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet -- that environmentalists and many local officials say funneled storm surge from Katrina into neighborhoods, increasing rather than reducing the devastation.
"The White House has studiously avoided making any choices about what should be rebuilt, and the corps has taken that to mean rebuild everything," said David R. Conrad, a senior water resources specialist with the National Wildlife Federation and a veteran corps watcher.
White House officials discounted such criticism Friday and said they had the rebuilding effort well in hand.
Aides said officials were working behind the scenes to ensure that all of the proposals unveiled by the president in his New Orleans speech became law. (In addition to the worker accounts, Bush called for a Gulf Opportunity Zone, or GO Zone, that would provide tax breaks and loans to small businesses, as well as an Urban Homesteading Act that would give low-income families surplus government property and favorable mortgage rates in exchange for the promise to build homes.)
Meanwhile, administration budget officials are preparing another emergency spending bill -- this time for about $20 billion, much of it for such clearly defined projects as rebuilding military bases and a NASA facility. The aides said that Bush had not ruled out proposing a reconstruction "czar" or coordinator, though such a post could not "compete with state and local decision-makers."
But if administration work on reconstruction is proceeding, it seems not to be occurring with anything like the urgency and decisiveness that Bush suggested it would when he stood before the cameras in a darkened and largely deserted New Orleans for his Sept. 15 address.