NEW ORLEANS – President Bush's final meeting with the leaders of Mexico and Canada on Monday has the intended twist of giving an economic and symbolic boost to New Orleans, which is recovering with uneven success from the most brutal natural disaster in U.S. history.
Ahead of the day's events, the Bush administration tried to frame New Orleans' turnaround from Hurricane Katrina in upbeat terms. Paul Conway, chief of staff for the federal government's recovery effort, said elected and volunteer leaders in the city are demanding and getting results.
Their message is, "A new era of business in New Orleans is here," Conway told reporters traveling with Bush on Air Force One. Conway said much of the progress under way in New Orleans is not easy to see -- like underground infrastructure work and massive planning projects.
More than two years after the storms, large swaths of New Orleans and the Gulf remain in disrepair while local governments grapple with complex issues of rebuilding. About two-thirds of the population has returned, but the trend is slowing.
Rent has increased by more than 40 percent since the disaster. About half of the homeowners who were promised money from the federally funded and state-run Road Home program have yet to see their grants. Many projects to rebuild infrastructure are under way with funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. However, many more haven't even begun.
Bush is meeting for two days with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderon for his fourth and final North American Leaders' Summit, which is centered on expanding commerce against rising anti-trade sentiment.
The three countries already share the largest trading partnership in the world, totaling nearly $1 trillion a year. Heading into the meeting, Bush said he plans to talk to Harper and Calderon about expanding trade in the Western Hemisphere.
The timing comes as the United States is mired in an economic slide, and many displaced workers and labor leaders blame trade for shipping jobs overseas. A particular political target is the North American Free Trade Agreement, which turned the U.S., Mexico and Canada into a giant trade zone 14 years ago.
Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama have threatened to pull the U.S. out of NAFTA as a means to pressure Canada and Mexico to negotiate more protections for workers and the environment. Bush calls the idea isolationist and reckless.
He sees trade with friendly nations as essential to economic growth and national security. He and his counterparts are expected to use the platform of the New Orleans summit to defend NAFTA. And Bush, frustrated by a stalled free-trade deal with Colombia, will again urge Congress to put it to a vote.
Bush does not have plans to tour damaged areas on his 16th visit to the Gulf Coast region since Katrina hit in August 2005, but will meet with community leaders on Tuesday. White House advisers say the very decision to hold the summit in New Orleans shows that New Orleans is ready to host a meeting with three world leaders.
The federal government has approved $120 billion for Gulf Coast recovery efforts. About $90 billion of that has been obligated, while a smaller portion has actually been spent.
FEMA, the federal agency derided for its failed initial response to the hurricane, is "revitalized, has a new sense of purpose, and is absolutely dedicated to making certain that they are working closely with the city and the state," Conway said.
Most of Bush's time will be spent in a hotel and a historic former city hall in the Central Business District, out of sight from the residential areas hit hardest by Katrina. His agenda includes a few events of local flavor, but they are secondary to diplomatic talks.
But he will discuss recovery efforts and the challenges that remain at least twice: in comments to business executives Monday night, and at a Tuesday lunch with community leaders that will include his new Gulf Coast recovery chief, retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Doug O'Dell.
Bush's pro-trade message is up against a tough audience at home. His public approval rating dipped to a new low, 28 percent, in an Associated Press-Ipsos poll this month. Only 27 percent are happy with his job in handling the economy.
Bush's agenda Monday includes the reopening of the Mexican consulate in New Orleans; the Mexican government had closed it in 2002 to save money.