Editor’s Note: Today, as Obama makes his first presidential visit to New Orleans, we repost Melissa Harris-Lacewell and James Perry’s appraisal of what Obama owes the city that survived Hurricane Katrina. "In the midst of this crisis the Democratic Party found its voice," the authors write. "Democratic victory was possible because the people of New Orleans suffered. This is a debt Democrats must repay."
The Democratic Party found its voice in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It owes the people of New Orleans a real recovery.
When New Orleans flooded in August 2005, the Democratic Party was a shambles, locked out of the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives. For nearly a decade the Democrats played defense against a Republican onslaught initiated by Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America. After September 11, Democrats had joined with Republicans in giving President Bush unprecedented executive authority, thereby helping to erode civil liberties at home and authorize ill-advised aggression overseas. In 2004 Democrats were keenly aware that a solid majority of Americans believed it was unpatriotic to protest the Iraq War. So instead of articulating a clear alternative to Bush’s militarism, they nominated John Kerry on the strength of his record as a solider. Even so, they found it impossible to outmaneuver the existing commander in chief.
In August 2005 the Democratic Party had no clear leader, no identifiable platform, no winning national coalition and little political courage.
Then the force of Hurricane Katrina devastated the inadequate levees surrounding New Orleans. Americans watched as the city flooded, the power went out, and food and water became scarce. They watched as emergency shelters became centers of disease, starvation, agony and death. The nation watched in horror, but no mass evacuation began and Air Force One did not land. As the crisis wore on, the public became increasingly confused by and angry about the lack of coordinated response to alleviate human suffering and evacuate trapped citizens. As the waters rose, President Bush’s approval sank.
In the midst of this crisis the Democratic Party found its voice. The suffering in New Orleans allowed it the first sustained and successful opportunity to criticize the Bush administration. Along with the newly emboldened mainstream media, Democrats asked: how can a government that is unable to get water to an American city for three days be trusted to prosecute a foreign war? The Democrats’ 2006 midterm win, widely understood as a referendum on the war, was also made possible by the images of New Orleanians trapped on the roofs of their homes.
New Orleans’s inadequate levees revealed how crony capitalism reduced border defense to profit motivation rather than government priority. Not even the Gulf Coast’s critical oil industry was sufficient to make levee maintenance, repair and reinforcement a national spending priority. Michael Brown’s incompetent leadership of FEMA revealed the Bush administration’s utter disregard for citizen safety compared to personal patronage. The choices that made New Orleans unsafe meant that the entire country was vulnerable.