President Obama struck a characteristically hopeful note while commemorating the 10-year anniversary of America’s most controversial 21st-century natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina, during his tour of New Orleans.
Those who might have been holding out hope for a nuanced takedown of the response to the epic catastrophe that washed away much of what the city once was, literally and figuratively, will have to look elsewhere for that sort of thing.
After all, the president has a party to boost as the 2016 elections loom ever closer.
It’s not that Obama didn’t gesture at the host of stubborn problems plaguing New Orleans: income inequality that maps onto greater racial disparities; infrastructure woes; lopsided recovery efforts (again along racial divides); education employment and poverty struggles (ditto); gentrification. He alighted on those issues for brief spells, but evidently he thought he was there to play a different role than Critic-in-Chief.
As he delivered his address before a crowd gathered at the Andrew P. Sanchez Community Center in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward—one of the hardest-hit sectors during the monster storm—Obama listed several markers of progress to make his case that New Orleans has become a “model for disaster response and resilience,” despite persistent charges to the contrary.
“We learned lessons from Katrina,” he said.
As for evidence Obama used to back up his claims, the president declared that before Katrina, New Orleans’ public schools “were largely broken.” Now, he said, “we’re seeing real gains in achievement” with new schools and expanded resources to help the process along. He trotted out the statistics, stating that the local high school graduation rate has risen to 73 percent, more than 20 percentage points higher than it was a decade ago, and noted that college enrollment numbers had also improved.
Another moment that might raise multiple eyebrows was the one in which Obama claimed that New Orleans is now a “laboratory for urban innovation across the country.”
And he made sure to invoke that reliable refrain of campaign season: job creation. “Together we’re building a New Orleans that’s as entrepreneurial as anyplace in the country,” the president announced, noting that infrastructure reconstruction constitutes one promising area of employment opportunity, as does transportation. His outlook was also sunny when it came to water management and support for small businesses, and he gave credit to the city for the “remarkable achievement” of ending veterans’ homelessness.
Playing on another theme that has the potential to split Americans according to their party loyalties, Obama also brought up the two-word problem that’s practically become an epithet in Koch-friendly circles: climate change. “We’re going to see more extreme weather events as a result of climate change,” he warned, offering assurance to local residents by crowing about William Craig Fugate, head of the “revamped” Federal Emergency Management Agency, and about the upgraded $14 billion system for levees and gates in New Orleans.
That said, Obama conceded that the government’s NOLA to-do list still features a number of action items. “Our work won’t be done when almost 40 percent of our children still live in poverty in this city,” he allowed, or when the typical black household earns half of what a white household earns. Also, he added, there are still far “too many people, especially African-American men, who can’t find a job,” and boys and young men of color are struggling to reach their potential.
Circling back to that whole hope thing, Obama ended his speech on an upswing, calling New Orleans “the gateway to America’s soul” and pledging, “we will keep working until everyone who wants to come home can come home.”
Watch Obama’s speech in full below (WhiteHouse.gov via YouTube):