Mr. Bush spent his brief visit in a meeting with political and business leaders on the edge of the Garden District, the grand neighborhood largely untouched by the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina, and saw little devastation. He did not go into the city's hardest-hit areas or to Jackson Square, where several hundred girls from the Academy of the Sacred Heart staged a protest demanding stronger levees.
Mr. Bush's motorcade did pass some abandoned neighborhoods as it traveled on Interstate 10 into the city.
"It may be hard for you to see, but from when I first came here to today, New Orleans is reminding me of the city I used to come to visit," the president told the local leaders at the Convention and Visitors Bureau, an independent group set up to attract business and tourism to the city.
Mr. Bush added that "for folks around the country who are looking for a great place to have a convention, or a great place to visit, I'd suggest coming here to the great New Orleans."
Mr. Bush, who appeared to be trying to spread optimism in a city that is years away from recovery, did not tell the group or the city's residents what many were hoping to hear: that he would commit the federal government to building the strongest possible levees, a Category 5 storm protection system.
Instead, on a day when the Bush administration revised the deficit upward to more than $400 billion and blamed it largely on Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Bush restated his support for spending $3.1 billion of federal money on building "stronger and better" levees.
Local engineers say those levees would protect against the 100-mile-an-hour winds of a Category 2 hurricane and the low barometric pressure of a Category 3 or weak Category 4 storm. Hurricane Katrina peaked as a Category 5 storm in the Gulf of Mexico and hit land as a Category 3 storm.
The president ignored questions about the city's new rebuilding plan, introduced Wednesday night to enormous community criticism, and White House officials traveling with Mr. Bush declined to offer opinions. The plan, which depends on nearly $17 billion more from the federal government, gives neighborhoods in low-lying parts of the city from four months to a year to attract sufficient numbers of residents or be bulldozed.
The federal government has so far authorized $85 billion in relief to the Gulf Coast, with $25 billion spent.
"We're not going to weigh in," Donald E. Powell, the president's Gulf Coast recovery coordinator, told reporters on Air Force One on Thursday morning. "It will be their plan."
In the meeting at the Convention and Visitors Bureau, Mr. Bush sat between Mayor C. Ray Nagin and Lt. Gov. Mitchell J. Landrieu. Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, the Democrat with whom Mr. Bush has a chilly relationship, was in The Netherlands looking at the country's flood-control system.
Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said that the president had not deliberately timed his visit on a day when Ms. Blanco was not in town, and that the White House had reached out to her but she had a scheduling conflict.
Ms. Blanco's press secretary, Denise Bottcher, said that Ms. Blanco would be returning to New Orleans on Thursday night, just hours after the president left the city, and that she was "disappointed" she had missed his visit.
From New Orleans, Mr. Bush traveled to Waveland and Bay St. Louis in Mississippi, where he viewed destruction along the Gulf Coast. He then headed for Palm Beach, Fla., for a closed-door $4 million fund-raiser for the Republican National Committee and Republican candidates at the home of Dwight Schar, a homebuilder and a co-owner of the Washington Redskins.