Obama's New Orleans Nightmare
The president's remarks about the federal response to Hurricane Katrina marked a signature moment—when The Deity became just another evasive bureaucratic pol.
It was entirely predictable that Barack Obama would, in time, fall short of the romantic ideal advertised by the most adoring of his moist-eyed supporters. He is, after all, a successful politician.
But it comes as a shock that the 44th president —who only recently entered the public consciousness as a world-shaking game-changer—could metamorphose so completely into just another Washington creature emitting an inky cloud of bureaucratic evasions. As his disillusioned former acolytes wring their hands over his descent into the grubby business of realpolitik—whether it be caving in to the ungrateful insurance companies and splitting the difference on health-care reform, or preparing to accede to the Pentagon's demands for thousands more troops for the quagmire in Afghanistan—Obama's narrative arc is not a pretty one.
“I felt he could have at least given me a straightforward answer, even ‘We have real doubts about the costs of the damage,’” Gabriel Bordenave, who asked Obama the Katrina question Thursday, told me. “He was trying to avoid the issue.”
You know things are bad when Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, one of the president's more reliable defenders, calls him "disingenuous," as Robinson did this morning on MSNBC, reacting to an answer Obama gave at Thursday's televised town meeting in New Orleans. (It's less surprising that Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, would deride Obama's performance as "pathetic.")
Indeed, at times during his drop-by in the Big Easy (on the way to a $34,000-a-couple DNC fundraising dinner in San Francisco), Obama impersonated a double-talking hack—a bracing contrast to the principled, charismatic leader who shows up in HBO's nostalgic documentary, By the People: The Election of Barack Obama, which debuts on Nov. 3, a year after his historic victory.
So which image is closer to the bone—the leader or the hack?
A New Orleans law-school graduate named Gabriel Bordenave is enjoying his requisite 15 minutes for teasing out the president's inner equivocator. The 29-year-old Bordenave, who voted for Obama, pressed him regarding his solemn campaign promise to reverse the Bush administration's lousy performance on Hurricane Katrina.
"Why is it [that] four years after Katrina we're still fighting with the federal government for money to repair our devastated city?" Bordenave demanded, citing insufficient funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a much-needed community college and for the city's only full-service public hospital, both of which were severely damaged by the storm and still languish unrepaired. "I mean, I expected as much from the Bush administration," Bordenave went on, "but why are we still being nickled and dimed in our recovery?"
In the middle of his lengthy, defensive, and self-justifying response—praising his administration for, among other feats, "working around the clock to clear up red tape and to eliminate bureaucracy"—Obama unleashed the money quote:
"Now, I wish I could just write a check—you say, 'Why not?' Well, you know, there's this whole thing about the Constitution and Congress and"—here the president smirked as some in the crowd laughed—"not to mention the fact that...one of the interesting things you find out about being president is everybody will attack you for spending money, unless you're spending it on them. You notice that? So we've got to go through procedures."
This morning, Bordenave—who is quoted in The New York Times as calling Obama's response "a blow-off answer"—told me: "I felt he could have at least given me a straightforward answer, even 'We have real doubts about the costs of the damage.' Instead he said, 'Oh, it's the Congress and the Constitution and I can't write you a check.' He was trying to avoid the issue."
Ironically, Obama seems to have been spot-on on the substance. Satirist and Simpsons star Harry Shearer, a part-time New Orleans resident and a fierce advocate for Katrina recovery, told me that while he found many of Obama's remarks "insulting," "infuriating" and ill-informed, "I have to empathize with the president" regarding the fate of the damaged hospital, "because the real answer is so fucking complex"—a hornet's nest of hidden agendas and squabbling among local and state officials and Louisiana State University, which wants to ditch the old Charity Hospital downtown and build a brand-new facility in a more affluent neighborhood.
Even Republican Rep. Joseph Cao—who defeated the corrupt William Jefferson last year to represent New Orleans—is happy with Obama these days. "We've been pleased with the Obama administration's efforts to aid New Orleans," his spokeswoman told me. "We do not have criticism of the Obama administration. FEMA's problems extend way past the Obama administration."
And yet it was a moment of terrible optics, ready-made for the negative television ad that some media consultant will doubtless produce in due course: Obama, the cold-blooded bureaucrat-in-chief, avoiding responsibility.
"The higher you go, the harder you fall, and Obama has come down rather quickly," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "In January, he was the man of the millennium, and now he's seen as the dithering wonk."
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.