Nine Times that the Media Has Declared a “Katrina Moment” for Barack Obama

Weigel
Reporting on Politics and Policy.
July 7 2014 11:09 AM

Nine Times that the Media Has Declared a “Katrina Moment” for Barack Obama

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Striking the Obama administration again and again

Illustration by NASA via Getty Images

Via the Washington Free Beacon, I see that USA Today's Susan Page used the K-word when the subject of an Obama visit to Texas came up on MSNBC's Daily Rundown.

"It's a Katrina moment, right?" said Page. "He's going to a fundraiser, and not going to the border where there's a crisis?"

It's true, Obama has flown in to observe other disasters. It's also true that "Katrina moment" has overtaken "bullhorn moment"—a reference to George W. Bush's impromptu and inspiring post-9/11 remarks in New York City—as the essential cliché of politics. By my count, at least eight major events prior to today have been compared to Hurricane Katrina, as events that could forever undermine the credibility of the Obama administration. (That's eight plus the one today. Nobody write in about how my list is too short.)

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Katrina Moment No. 1: The financial crisis. The initial Obama response to the financial crisis was framed as Katrina-ish in an encouraging sort of way. Seriously! "Unless and until Barack Obama addresses the full depth of Americans’ anger with his full arsenal of policy smarts and political gifts," wrote Frank Rich in the NYT, "his presidency and, worse, our economy will be paralyzed." Honestly, this doesn't sound wrong.

Katrina Moment No. 2: Swine flu. The swine flu outbreak of April 2009! Sure, you may have forgotten it, but at the time Hugh Hewitt asked whether a botched response would destroy the Obama presidency. "A death toll is a death toll, and if one begins to pile up in the U.S. the at least four-day delay in moving decisively to control legal entry into the country from Mexico will be entered in President Obama's account."

Katrina Moment No. 3: The Underwear Bomber. Then-DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano responded to the lucky apprehension of a dim terrorist by saying "the system worked," inspiring a NYT news analysis about how every flailing administration official was in danger of being compared to Michael "Brownie" Brown. "Hurricane Katrina was a crisis on a different order of magnitude than this event," wrote Peter Baker, "certainly, but the politics of attack and parry do not dwell on context or proportionality."

Katrina Moment No. 4: The Haiti earthquake. Opinions were mixed on this one. In early January 2010, Dan Kennedy argued that Haiti was not "Obama's Katrina," as Haiti is not part of the United States. (I just checked, and this is still true.) But later in the month, the Wall Street Journal cleared that up with a guest op-ed titled "Haiti: Obama's Katrina," and pointing out that "the death toll from Katrina was under 2,000 people" while "deaths in Haiti as of yesterday are at least 150,000."

Katrina Moment No. 5: The BP oil spill. In the summer of 2010, polling showed the public even more critical of the government response there than it had been toward the Katrina response. "This was, of course, New Orleans' Katrina and Mississippi's Katrina," said Brian Williams during an interview with the president. "And you're familiar now that it's getting baked in a little bit in the media that BP was President Obama's Katrina. And it's also getting baked in that the administration was slow off the mark. Is that unfair?" Spoiler: He did think it was unfair.

Katrina Moment No. 6: Hurricane Sandy. To be fair, it was mostly just Sean Hannity saying this. "With the horrifying images of Sandy’s devastation now contrasted with the president’s constant campaigning," he said on Nov. 1, 2012, "this is starting to look like, in my opinion, Obama’s Katrina." This was before the administration's response to Sandy, and Chris Christie's praise for it, helped make New York and New Jersey two of the only states where the Obama vote increased from 2008 to 2012. (The others? Mississippi and Louisiana.)

Katrina Moment No. 7: Benghazi/IRS/NSA. The trinity of scandals that broke out in the late spring 2013 were widely Katrina-fied. "If the president does not soon regain control of the narrative," wrote Todd Eberly, "he is likely to suffer the same fate as his predecessor — a collapse in public confidence and a vastly diminished second term."

Katrina Moment No. 8: Obamacare. In November 2013 this meme took on more force and popularity than any that preceded it, especially after progressives fumed at a media conflating a natural disaster with a website delay. Ron Fournier even argued that the website crisis might be Obama's Katrina and Iraq. "The crises came after a series of unrelated events that had already caused doubt among voters about the presidents," explained Fournier. "To borrow a cliché, Katrina was the last straw."

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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