WASHINGTON – President Bush arrived in Pascagoula, Miss., Thursday, hours before he was scheduled to address the nation with his first prime-time speech since Hurricane Katrina (search) slammed into the Gulf Coast more than two weeks ago.
After landing in Gulfport, Miss., aboard Air Force One, Bush flew to Pascagoula aboard Marine One and was scheduled to tour a Chevron refinery and meet with local officials. He then was expected to fly to New Orleans, where he will give his speech.
Watch live coverage of the president's address to the nation on FOX News Channel at 9:00 p.m. EDT.
Those close to Bush said the speech would set an uplifting tone. Political watchers say the remarks should address issues of leadership and race.
Making his fourth trip to the region since Katrina hit, Bush will speak from the historic Jackson Square in New Orleans, home to the 278-year-old St. Louis Cathedral.
Bush “will talk about the future. The future of the Gulf Coast, the future of New Orleans, and how we’re going top work with local and state leaders to make sure that we build a stronger, better New Orleans and Gulf Coast region,” senior counselor to the president Dan Bartlett said Thursday.
Bush also will lay out a broad outline for a strategy to rebuild what was destroyed along the Gulf Coast. The speech will focus on education, health care and housing, according to White House (search) officials. One item that some members of Congress have been pushing for, a federal czar overseeing the rebuilding, is not likely though to come up in his speech tonight, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Wednesday.
Earlier Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security named a special inspector general to handle hurricane relief, and the House voted to establish a bipartisan committee to investigate the response to Katrina. Democrats had wanted an independent commission to look into failures by the federal government to intervene more quickly.
Money is a continuing concern over the course of the clean-up as spending authorizations have surpassed $60 billion, and some say that the federal budget deficit could soar past $400 billion.
But Bartlett dismissed a call for higher taxes to pay for the cleanup.
"There’s always discussions about raising taxes,” Bartlett said. "The thing we have to think about, is that right when businesses and people are trying to get back on their feet in the Gulf Coast region, the worst thing we could do to these families is to pop them with another tax,” especially considering the recent hike in gas prices, he said.
Presidential advisers drafting the speech were working on plans for legislation that would provide job training and housing for people who have to start over with their lives, according to one Republican official. The advisers also were discussing tax credits for businesses to stay in the devastated region, said the official, who was consulted but wanted to remain anonymous because Bush had yet to deliver the speech.
Aides also said he would talk about dealing with economic conditions that left many people without the option of getting to safety before the storm. Bush also will acknowledge some of that New Orleans' poverty has its roots in racial discrimination.
Some critics might see a shift in Bush's position on race and the storm. Bush earlier had said the storm did not discriminate and neither will recovery.
Polling shows Americans are willing to pay to rebuild New Orleans. According to a CBS-New York Times poll released Wednesday, 73 percent expect their taxes will increase as a result of Katrina, and more than half said they were willing to pay more taxes to help with Katrina recovery, job training and housing for victims.
According to one White House aide, Bush also planned to acknowledge the role of poverty in the disaster that has affected many who could least afford it. Black Americans have been particularly angered by the government response, with an overwhelming majority telling pollsters they believe help would have come sooner if many of the people stranded were not poor and black.
The perception of a sluggish response to the storm has led to the lowest approval ratings of Bush's presidency. A FOX News-Opinion Dynamics poll released Thursday showed the president's approval rating at 41 percent, down from 45 percent last month. Bush's disapproval rating reached 51 percent this month.
Bush, who prides himself on being a direct communicator, has struggled to convey a clear message since the storm hit. He began this week by dismissing questions about what went wrong as a "blame game." But on Tuesday, he said he took responsibility for any failures on the federal end.
Many people, including members of the president's party, have said he should have given that kind of speech soon after the hurricane made landfall along the coast on Aug. 29.
“Right now what the president needs to do is show he’s in control of the situation, that he's focused on the effort, and that he’s going to not micromanage, but lead and demand a lot of all levels of government to do better. … to reconstruct a badly battered part of the country," Clifford May, former Republican National Committee communications manager, told FOX News.
FOX News analyst and Democratic strategist Bob Beckel said he believed the charges of poor race relations against the White House were undeserved, but the administration must nonetheless address the criticism with the help of black leaders.
Bush is not expected to speak before a live audience. He is scheduled to return to the White House after the speech.
The format of the speech — Bush speaking alone to a national audience from a famous urban site — is reminiscent of his address from the front of the Statue of Liberty three years ago on the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
FOX News’ Wendell Goler, Greg Kelly and The Associated Press contributed to this report.