A favorite media narrative of the ongoing Gulf oil spill is the obvious one: Is this President Barack Obama's Hurricane Katrina? The conservative Washington Examiner headlines its timeline of the disaster this way: "Gulf oil spill becoming Obama's Katrina." A New York Times article on Saturday noted, "Shadow of Hurricane Katrina Hangs Over Obama After Spill."
The White House is obviously sensitive to any charge of Katrina-ism. Obama went to New Orleans on Sunday to review the spill situation and preparations for contending with the oil once it hits wetlands, fishing estuaries and the coast land. This included taking a helicopter ride over soon-to-be-slicked areas. Could the president of the United States have effectively exercised his responsibilities from the White House? Was a trip truly necessary?
One reporter asked White House press secretary Robert Gibbs what Obama accomplished with the trip. Here's Gibbs' response:
One, you get a firsthand view of the recovery efforts. The president heard from, as I said, the parish presidents and the Coast Guard about the processes that they're setting up. One of the things that they talked about, that the president talked about with the fishermen and the president talked about with the parish presidents is how do we set up a compensation system for those whose livelihoods are threatened because of this oil that are normally out fishing right now? How do we set that up in a streamlined way? How do we make sure that as BP foots the bill for this, compensation claims are set up in a way that's fair to the fishermen? How do we -- how are state and local authorities, these parishes, how are they interfacing with the Coast Guard in order to set up adequate and quick response plans, as we talked about in here, for when the oil does come in, where the booming goes, and a prioritization for that.
And I think the president -- look, there's no doubt that Admiral Allen [the Coast Guard commandant] discussed several issues that I think -- in terms of ensuring that we have everything in place that we need, it was important for the president to hear. So I think the president thought it was a worthwhile trip.
Could most of this been accomplished via a phone or video conference? Probably. And it's tough to estimate the value of the symbolism of an actual presidential trip to the region. But the White House sure wants Obama to be seen as fully engaged --not like you-know-who during you-know-when. No flyovers for this commander-in-chief.
To further combat the "Obama's Katrina" meme -- which has quickly become a favorite of right-wing pundits -- the White House has been regularly sending out press releases to reporters touting all the federal actions underway in response to the spill.
In a Sunday night e-mail to journalists, the White House noted that in the past 24 hours, Obama had visited the Gulf Coast "to inspect response operations firsthand," the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had issued fishing restrictions and had joined forces with BP to test a new technique to break up the leaking oil before it hits the surface, BP had set up a process for handling claims for damage and losses due to the spill, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar had collaborated with the governors of Gulf Coast states to coordinate federal and state efforts, and the EPA had started posting air-monitoring data regarding the potential effect of the oil burns (so far, "no red flags"). And there was more. The message: we've been quite busy.
It is an impressive-sounding list -- certainly evidence that the White House has been on top of the matter, with or without a presidential trip. But one irony of the "Obama's Katrina" charge is that Gulf Coast advocates have long griped about Obama's own response to the original Katrina. They contend that Obama, as president, has not done enough to rebuild New Orleans and other Katrina-struck areas.
While campaigning in February 2008, Obama declared, "I promise you that when I'm in the White House, I will commit myself every day to keeping up Washington's end of this trust. This will be a priority of my presidency." Yet a report issued last year and based on a survey of over 50 Gulf Coast community leaders found that most of them believed Obama was not coming close to keeping that promise. He received a score of D in several categories: helping "displaced families return home, revitalizing infrastructure, increasing coastal hurricane protection." The report also noted that though administration officials had maintained they were able to shake loose $1 billion from appropriated funds for Katrina recovery efforts, Obama did not use the $787 billion stimulus bill for rebuilding New Orleans. "Clearly, many Gulf Coast leaders believe that -- whatever the reasons -- the current leadership in Washington has not lived up to its pledge to strengthen recovery efforts in the region," the report said.
The Gulf oil spill is not "Obama's Katrina." Yet Katrina itself may be. The ongoing and far-from-finished Katrina recovery, though, is hardly headline-grabbing material these days. Which leads to something of an odd situation: as Obama's political foes desperately try to brand the current disaster "Obama's Katrina," a decent response from the president will make it easier for him to escape the charge he has not kept his Hurricane Katrina promises.
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