For almost eight years, conservatives and Republicans have been desperate to try to use the phrase “Obama’s Katrina”, knowing that the actual Katrina destroyed the tattered remains of George Bush’s credibility. It was, remember, a catastrophic failure, symbolized by Bush’s clueless flyover, where he glanced at the devastation from 30,000 feet, as well as his chuckleheaded praise for his dimwitted FEMA head. “Heckuva job, Brownie”, became emblematic of all the venality, incompetence, and cronyish destruction of his administration.
So it stands to reason that the GOP has been looking for the same thing in Obama, finding his Katrina in every tornado, every cop killing, every hurricane (one of the reasons they were so, so mad at Chris Christie following Sandy). Nothing has ever stuck, which is why they were so excited at the flooding in Baton Rouge.
After all, the President remained on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, of all places, and didn’t visit until today. That the governor, John Bel Edwards, asked him not to do so due to distractions, is merely beside the point. Obama is aloof while a city floods and people drown. This is, finally, his Katrina.
CNN got in on the actCNN got in on the act, calling his visit “amid criticism that he’s late.” The criticism came from a newspaper, which today praised his visit, and Donald Trump, who flew in for a photo op, in which you could tell his disdain at having to pass out goods for a few minutes. But still, he was there, and the President wasn’t, so…Katrina?
Here’s the difference: the problem wasn’t that Bush didn’t visit quickly enough, or even land. I don’t think that would have mattered. Honestly, the people who are helping are working as hard as they can, driven by an almost superhuman desire to help their fellow humans. Neither Bush, nor Obama, would actually make much of a difference by mere physical presence. They aren’t experts in disaster relief; no President has been except Herbert Hoover. They aren’t logistical minded. Maybe Eisenhower could have seen ways to have troops help more efficiently. They may be inspiring, and may “shine a spotlight”, but the practical limit to their effectiveness is pretty low.
No, the problem wasn’t his dullard and insensitive photo. It was what it represented: a man whose entire administration was dedicated to the idea that government can’t do anything right, and so it shouldn’t do anything right, and so it should be stripped of all the resources to do anything right. FEMA was big government, just like the EPA. So the budget was cratered and a know-nothing horse-petter was put in charge. The disaster wasn’t because George Bush failed to go to New Orleans; the disaster was because George Bush and his political philosophy went to Washington DC.
That’s not the case with Obama. Rebuilding FEMA was one of his primary goals, and everyone, from the most liberal Lousiana politician (which is the conservative Democrat John Bel Edwards) to the most conservative, non-David Duke faction, has been full of praise. This is what government is supposed to do, and this is what it tends to do under Democrats. That’s why it isn’t Obama’s Katrina. It has nothing to do with physical proximity, and everything to do with governing style.
Will this lesson be learned? I doubt it. Everyone is in favor of big government when they need it, and hate it when other people need it. But only one party believes, at least to some extent, that we are one country, and that the government is an extension of our basic will, not an alien entity. One party believes that government can do good. The other doesn’t believe it, and more so, will do anything not to be proven wrong, and so will take any step to make sure that government can’t do any good, even if it hurts everyone else. It’s a form of unreality, a nonsense faith, that is as self-reinforcing as it is cruel.
Central Lousiana is not a hotbed of Democratic voters, much of Baton Rouge aside. Many of the people helped by FEMA would never consider voting for the one party that respects and supports the work of FEMA. I’m proud that that doesn’t matter. The “F” in FEMA means what it means: Federal, a joint work of a nation, of a shared citizenship, who pull together even from thousands of miles away, through the work of a government by the people, and for the people. It’s worth fighting for, so that the wrecked houses and shattered lives can be rebuilt.