Monday, August 22, 2016

Louisiana Floods Are A Bad Look For Obama

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina touched down in Louisiana, destroying 80% of the properties in the New Orleans metropolitan area, cutting off power to some 900,000 people, and claiming the lives of over 1,000 people in Louisiana alone. To say it was a major national crisis is an understatement.  One of the biggest narratives that came out of the Hurricane Katrina story, aside from the raw destruction and loss of life, is how woefully unprepared and inadequate the federal government's response was to the devastation.  President Bush, who was on vacation at the time in his home state of Texas, was personally criticized by many local leaders on the ground in Louisiana, as well as by regional and national leaders, for failing to provide a competent and expedient response.  To make matters worse, he flew over the affected area in Air Force One on his way from Texas to DC, giving the appearance that the President didn't really care about the thousands of people on the ground who were suffering.  The federal agency charged with actually putting boots on the round, the Federal Emergency Management Agency ("FEMA"), failed to send any relief to the area until days after the hurricane had already made land fall.   In sum, the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina was both an actual failure as well as a perceived failure.

Fast forward to August 2016.  Louisiana has once again been hit by a natural disaster in the form of a flood which, although not as devastating as Hurricane Katrina, has destroyed over 40,000 homes and has taken the lives of 13 people.  In contrast to the federal government's failure to properly respond to Katrina, the response to the 2016 floods has actually been good:
Gov. John Bel Edwards, who has a better view than just about anyone, went on MSNBC Thursday night and told viewers that "I don't feel forgotten by the federal government…We have what we need from the federal government."
Edwards and his allies stressed Thursday that they've been in daily communication with White House officials. FEMA administrator Craig Fugate, an emergency response specialist who before joining the Obama administration oversaw Florida's disaster responses, has been here. So has Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson. President Barack Obama started issuing disaster declarations quickly, which frees up federal resources and gets the ball rolling on longer term needs. Inspectors are on the ground. It's a miserable time for the many thousands affected, but a faulty response isn't making it more miserable.
In short, as far as the federal government goes, this is not Katrina.
So the actual response from President Obama and the federal government has been positive.  The perception of President Obama's response, however, has not been as great.


From Politico:
President Barack Obama has faced no shortage of criticism for continuing his vacation and golfing on Martha's Vineyard while some 1,600 miles away, people in Louisiana cope with the worst natural disaster in the United States since Hurricane Sandy.
Mike Huckabee laced into Obama as “disgraceful” on Friday for failing to travel to Louisiana in the wake of the state's devastating recent flooding, contrasting him unfavorably to Bill Clinton in similar situations as commander in chief.
“It’s a dereliction of duty,” Huckabee said on Fox Business’ “Mornings with Maria.” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson visited areas affected by the flooding on Thursday, while Obama has remained on vacation on Martha's Vineyard for the past two weeks.
The former Republican governor and presidential candidate made clear that his criticism “isn't about politics,” complimenting fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton, who he said “was the best at showing up for things like this.”
“And he showed a level of compassion,” Huckabee said of the 42nd president. “He represents the heart of America.”
From NBC:
Baton Rouge's local newspaper, The Advocate, wrote an op-ed with one message to President Obama, a "hurting Louisiana needs you now." . . . President Obama's frequent golf trips and yearly vacations have come under scrutiny by Republicans who point to his trips as evidence of inaction.
And some Republicans are criticizing him now for participating in a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton on Monday instead of visiting Louisiana . . .
"In Obama's defense, he may be waiting for the water to recede and first responders to do their jobs. A presidential visit brings rescue efforts to a halt and complicates the overall effort logistically. Timing is critical" Sabato said.
But the longer Obama waits, the worse his reputation will look as more images of displaced families come to light, Sabato said.
"It will be a serious public relations mistake if the president doesn't break off for a day and visit."


From the local paper in Louisiana:
Sometimes, presidential visits can get in the way of emergency response, doing more harm than good. But we don’t see that as a factor now that flood waters are subsiding, even if at an agonizing pace. It’s past time for the president to pay a personal visit, showing his solidarity with suffering Americans.
Like his predecessors, Obama has no doubt discovered that crises keep their own calendar, even when commanders-in-chief are trying to take some time off the clock. It’s an inconvenience of the presidency, but it’s what chief executives sign up for when they take the oath of office.
And if the president can interrupt his vacation for a swanky fundraiser for fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton, as he did on Monday, then surely he can make time to show up for a catastrophe that’s displaced thousands.
The optics of Obama golfing while Louisiana residents languished in flood waters was striking. It evoked the precedent of the passive federal response to the state’s agony in 2005, a chapter of history no one should ever repeat.
The president acted prudently in officially declaring a disaster for the flooded part of the state, a key step in advancing federal aid. We’ve been heartened so far by the active involvement of Craig Fugate, head of Federal Emergency Management Agency, a far cry from FEMA’s hapless Michael Brown in the days after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was slated to visit Louisiana today to assess the damage. 
But a disaster this big begs for the personal presence of the president at ground zero. In coming here, the president can decisively demonstrate that Louisiana’s recovery is a priority for his administration – and the United States of America.
I'm going to attempt to make a nuanced argument here that may be lost on those who only see things through the prism of their political ideology but, at any rate, here goes:

The President's actual response to the Louisiana floods was good, but his perceived response was bad.  Did the people of Louisiana receive prompt attention from FEMA and the Obama Administration?  Yes.  Is the federal government doing everything that it can to help the flood victims?  Yes. Should the President be allowed to go on vacation?  Yes. Would the President's physical presence on the ground in the state of Louisiana actually change anything?  No, of course not.  But if you're the President of the United States and a natural disaster hits the nation, you can't be seen on vacation.  Those are the unwritten rules. Is it fair?  No.  But those are the PR rules of the Presidency. 

To be sure, there are partisan hacks like Huckabee who are going to criticize this President no matter what.  There's nothing you can do about them.  Besides, they have no credibility.  But there is a legitimate optics issue whenever a President appears to be disconnected from a national disaster. To be fair, this applies to all Presidents equally.  If past Presidents Bush or Clinton had done the same, they could also expect to -- and, in fact they did -- get called to the carpet about the bad optics.

I have no doubt that this President and his administration have the situation in Louisiana under control.  But if were Olivia Pope on this one, I would have told the President to break away from the vacation and make the appearance in Louisiana that everybody expects a President to make.


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