Handled more deftly, Obama's visit to New Orleans last Thursday (Oct. 15) could have been a triumph for both the president and the city. U.S. Sen. John McCain may have carried the state with 59 percent of the vote last November, but Obama carried Orleans Parish — or, more precisely, Orleans Parish carried Obama, giving him 80 percent of its vote.
Anticipation for the visit had been great — until the schedule was released. Obama would arrive at Louis Armstrong International Airport in the late morning and leave again mid-afternoon — less than four hours from Air Force One touchdown to liftoff. (Total time on the ground: three hours, 47 minutes.) With lingering resentment over former president George W. Bush's lack of action after Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the federal levees still fresh in everyone's memory, Obama's abbreviated schedule was no small matter. "I don't know what the hell they are thinking," Tulane University historian Lawrence Powell fumed in The Times-Picayune. "He shouldn't come at all if he's coming for a glorified layover."
Asked about the criticism in an Oct. 13 press briefing, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, "The president has been down there over the past several years. I think this is his fifth stop. This isn't something new to him. ... I don't think the president is worried about that as much as he's worried about making sure that we're doing what has to be done to ensure that the Gulf is rebuilt and revitalized."
Lost in much of the discussion was the fact that the president has been helpful — even solicitous — regarding the recovery effort. Obama's Office of Gulf Coast Rebuilding, which was set to expire Sept. 30, received a last-minute extension through March 2010. He has released hundreds of millions of dollars in recovery funds from federal red tape and has sent Cabinet-level officials to the region often. On Thursday's visit, he brought Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, all of whom are crucial to the ongoing recovery.
Still, a presidential visit is largely symbolic, and when the White House announced Obama would come for a televised town hall in metro New Orleans instead of a tour of the affected Gulf Coast, even Democratic supporters expressed concern. A second appearance was added at a charter school in the Lower 9th Ward. In the end, the administration was unable to extend the visit more, as the president had to be in San Francisco by evening — for a black-tie fundraiser, a detail that didn't escape his detractors.
"They've done the best they could, considering they didn't plan it well from the get-go," Brian J. Brox, an assistant professor in the department of political science at Tulane University, said the day before Obama's arrival. "There was not enough coordination with the Louisiana congressional delegation and state and local authorities, not realizing how this would pay off in the press and the public. There was a big negative reaction to it. It was a lack of understanding of the dynamics down here."
"Clearly quality over quantity matters," said Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an associate professor of politics and African-American Studies at Princeton University and an MSNBC analyst. "It's interesting that this administration has learned a lot from the Clinton administration on health care reform, but given the brevity of the visit, they're not doing a very good job of learning from the Bush administration. The perception was that George W. Bush was out of touch with people on the ground. I think it was important for President Obama to show that he really cares."
It had already been a bumpy week for No-Drama Obama, and he wasn't just taking flak from his usual detractors (who, predictably, went into a snit over his Nobel Prize). He was catching hell from some key elements of his base as well. At the beginning of the week, a Gallup poll showed Obama's approval rating at 56 percent — the highest it had been since August, with only 37 percent of Americans disapproving of his performance in office. But there were murmurs of discontent among his supporters: health care advocates were growing frustrated at the president's inability to send a clear message on the public option, and some gay-rights supporters were volubly furious at Obama's Oct. 10 speech at yet another black-tie fundraiser for the Human Rights Campaign, in which he once again promised to undo the military's don't-ask-don't-tell policy, but offered no timetable.
So when Obama's initial schedule was released — one stop at a town hall at the University of New Orleans, nothing at all in the coastal parishes or in Mississippi — Louisiana politicians of both parties spoke out. U.S. Sen. David Vitter sent the president two letters urging a longer visit (and, predictably, Vitter released them to the media). Behind the scenes, Democratic advisors sent messages to the White House that a single town hall meeting would seem to give short shrift to rebuilding efforts. By week's end, the message had been received; on Oct. 9, the White House announced Obama would add a second stop at a site yet to be determined. Over the weekend, plans were finalized; he would appear at Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School on Caffin Avenue in the Lower 9th Ward. Again, he was a prisoner of his own schedule; Air Force One was scheduled to arrive at 11:20 a.m., while the town hall was set to begin at 1:15 p.m., leaving less than two hours for travel and the school photo op.
For Louisiana progressives, many of whom were quietly (and some not so quietly) seething over the fact that Obama did not come down for the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the decision not to tour the wetlands or inspect levees was a major disappointment. The opposition pounced. Congressman Steve Scalise, R-Metairie, held a press conference at the 17th Street Canal in Lakeview, where he coined a phrase used in media appearances all week, calling the president's visit a "drive-through daiquiri summit." He repeated the line the next day in an interview with MSNBC's Contessa Brewer: "A lot of us here in New Orleans want the president to see some of the issues we're dealing with here on the ground, not necessarily some little photo-op," he told Brewer. "We want him to come on the ground and spend some real quality time with the issues we're still grappling with." It was a clever squeeze play on the part of Scalise and the GOP. The San Francisco fundraiser had been long planned, and the chance to portray the New Orleans visit as a brief whistle stop on the way to a West Coast moneymaking event was too rich to pass up.
Obama's allies, meanwhile, were trying to change the subject. Asked to comment on the president's visit, Louisiana Democratic Party chairman Chris Whittington tried to turn the criticism back on Gov. Bobby Jindal: "The only person who isn't spending enough time in Louisiana is our own governor, who has been busy hopping around the country thinking about his next job instead of the one he has now. ... On the other hand, New Orleans has been one of the most-visited locations by senior White House officials since the president has been in office."
Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao was more frank. "A lot of [my constituents] are extremely disappointed given the short visit," he said from his Washington office. "They were hoping he would have a more extended stay, that he could see New Orleans East, the 9th Ward, as well as achievements in the area. Even though people are disappointed given his brief stay, I have a sense that people are grateful." Still, Cao had praise for Obama on the issues: "He knows exactly the pace of recovery here. I'm happy and honored the president is coming to New Orleans, given his busy schedule."
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu struck a similar tone. "Well, we're always happy to have a president visit. We were hoping it would be a longer, more comprehensive visit," Landrieu told Gambit. "We're hoping he'll come back before the first of the year to do a more comprehensive visit to not only New Orleans, but the Gulf Coast as well. He is making a meaningful stop going to one of our charter schools. That really symbolizes the potential rebirth of our public school system. His cabinet secretaries, three of them plus the DEQ, from HUD, Education, Homeland Security, will all be on the ground tomorrow making significant visits on important issues.
"I'm really hoping that the president addresses flood protection, barrier islands and coastal restoration. I think the last time a president dealt with barrier islands was when Teddy Roosevelt came," Landrieu added with a laugh. "It's time a president spent time seeing and understanding the challenges of coastal Louisiana. The best way to see that is from the air or in a small seaplane where you can really get a vision of the loss of wetlands."
If New Orleans felt it was getting short shrift from the president, Mississippi was getting no shrift at all. The mayors of hard-hit Waveland and Gulfport both indicated disappointment the president would not be coming to the state. Congressman Gene Taylor, a Democrat, sent the White House a six-page letter outlining problems, including what he saw as failures by homeowners' insurance companies.
Roberta Avila, executive director of the Steps Coalition, a Biloxi-based community recovery nonprofit, said her organization had not been offered tickets to the New Orleans town hall. Its members had entered their names in the online White House lottery. "It feels like we're getting left out," Avila said. "After Katrina there was huge national media attention on New Orleans as a result of that levee breach, but the eye of the hurricane actually came through Hancock County, which was really destroyed. The needs ... are the same in Mississippi as they are in Louisiana; a lot of us are dealing with the same kinds of issues. We don't feel in competition with New Orleans, but we definitely feel Mississippi has been left out."
Others were harsher regarding the lack of attention to Gulf infrastructure. Harry Shearer, the actor and frequent critic of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, blasted the president in a series of Huffington Post essays, most notably "Obama in New Orleans: Is That All There Is?"
"This is an itinerary drawn up for the two things to look good on TV: a town hall and kids," Shearer told WRNO-FM talk-radio host Michael Castner, saying Obama needed to focus on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who were "building it wrong one more time."
"Do you think President Bush was paying more attention?" Castner asked.
Shearer sighed. "I think the only president who has paid attention to us in the last four years is President (Jacques) Chirac."
In the end, pretty pictures, a good speech and an enthusiastic crowd overcame the contretemps. Fewer than 200 people showed up at UNO to protest. Rep. Charlie Melancon, who had not planned to be seen campaigning next to Obama, reversed course the day before the event and came back to Louisiana from Washington. (Despite his letters pleading Obama give more attention to the Gulf Coast, Vitter ended up not coming.) Melancon appeared at the town hall with Obama, alongside Jindal, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, Sen. Landrieu, Cao, Scalise, Mayor Ray Nagin and other dignitaries. Trumpeter Shamarr Allen provided a soulful version of the national anthem, and Obama took to the podium with pep.
"You're a feisty crowd," he noted when the town hall erupted in a bipartisan mix of cheers and boos for both Nagin and Jindal. Quickly, he ran through a stump speech of sorts, noting his administration's many trips to New Orleans and weaving in references to coastal parishes and Mississippi. (Avila's group, Steps, was outside with yellow protest signs.) When the 22-minute speech ended, he took several questions from a mostly friendly crowd. The prickliest moment came from Gabriel Bordenave of New Orleans, who complained about FEMA (applause from the crowd) and mentioned the city's lack of a hospital. "I expected as much from the Bush administration," Bordenave said, "but why are we still being nickel-and-dimed in our recovery?" Obama promised the crowd he knew the problems and was working on a "world-class" health solution.
The afternoon's most memorable question, however, combined Shearer's two telegenic moments into one: a kid at a town hall. The child was fourth-grader Tyren Scott of Paulina, La., who got the last question: "Why do people hate you?" he asked the president. Obama gave a deft answer, but by then the cable news networks had switched away from the town hall to concentrate on another little boy: Falcon Heene, a Colorado 6-year-old who was believed to have taken off in his family's homemade weather craft. Not even Obama could compete with the image of a giant Mylar balloon sailing through the Rocky Mountain skies. By 3:11 p.m., when Air Force One whisked Obama away for his scheduled rendezvous in San Francisco, the top story on CNN, Fox and MSNBC was no longer the president's trip to New Orleans, but the Balloon Boy of Colorado. (He was found hiding in his family's attic two hours later.)
Cable news had moved on, and the Obama/New Orleans news cycle had ended as abruptly as it had begun.
Aariel Charbonnet and David Winkler-Schmit contributed to the reporting on this story.