President Obama Nods Towards New Orleans

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“I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers, and rubble, and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message that no matter what happens to America she will always rebound with the most powerfully staged photo-ops in the world.”

So said Stephen Colbert at the 2006 White House Correspondent’s Association. The object of his sarcasm was of course President George W. Bush, who just months earlier had brought flood lights to Jackson Square in New Orleans, to proclaim live on television, “This government will learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina.” No one really believed him. Bush had, at that point, been saying reassuring things for weeks, as the flood waters rose, the death toll mounted, and thousands of people found themselves abandoned. His government’s failure was so complete that even his biggest presidential move–a prime time address–looked like a stunt, a photo op, a reaffirmation of all that had gone wrong in the first place.

So what of our current president, who holds no blame for the bungled response in 2005? In February of 2008, Obama went to Tulane University and promised to right Bush’s wrongs. “No more Brownie, no more heads of the Arabian horses association in charge of FEMA,” he said.

Since then, under pressure from new crises, Obama has not made much of the New Orleans recovery, at least in public by himself. But that does not mean he has ignored it. Senior administration officials have made regular trips to the still embattled city, focusing on how to speed reconstuction. “I would say what they have demonstrated in this first year is a low-key but genuine commitment to accelerate the business of recovery, ” Amy Liu, deputy director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, recently told the Times Picayune.

Others have been less generous in their praise. The Institute for Southern Studies polled over 50 community groups in the Gulf Coast to find out how well Obama was doing in addressing the Katrina delivery. He got mostly D grades, which is what Bush got from the same group, though Obama got more D+ grades and Bush got more D- grades.

So how has Obama decided to respond? With a couple quick events Thursday, a charter school visit and a Town Hall. He will be on the ground in Louisiana for a scheduled 3 hours and 45 minutes, before jetting off to a fundraiser in San Francisco. Not exactly a lit city square in prime time, but the comparisons to Bush have arrived anyway. This week, in the White House Briefing Room, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs did his best to push back:

Don’t judge anybody on the amount of time that they’ve spent there. Judge only what this administration promised they would do, what they’ve done every day, and what they’re continuing to work on. We feel enormously confident that if you judge us on that, that we’ll come out well compared—not just compared to previous efforts, but more importantly, tangible improvements in the rebuilding and in the lives of people that stayed there.

As of August, nearly four years after the hurricane, the Brookings institution found that 152,904 households receiving mail in Orleans Parish, compared with 198,232 before the storm and 133,966 two years later. Some 62,557 homes stand vacant or abandoned. The work is in other words not yet done. And the people of New Orleans hope that the Thursday Obama visit will represent much more than just another photo op.