Maybe he wished he’d planned to stay longer, though there may have been a point when he began to wish he hadn’t come at all. President Obama’s visit was criticized days in advance even by supporters for being too short. The advance team added a quick trip to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School in the Lower Ninth Ward—which thrilled the school but was criticized as a drive-by photo-op. The city has had enough of that kind of presidential attention.

UNO 10-15-09For the most part, the town hall crowd at UNO was raucously friendly to the president (though they embarrassed him somewhat by booing his hosts Gov. Bobby Jindal and Mayor Ray Nagin). “This is a feisty crowd here,” he observed. And the president, to his credit—and perhaps as a defensive, damage-control measure—brought along DHS secretary Janet Napolitano, HUD secretary Shaun Donovan, education secretary Arne Duncan, and, important for coastal restoration, Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. All were welcome.

The president was put on the defensive when Gabriel Bordenave, a 29-year-old Loyola Law graduate, asked: “Why is it four years after Katrina we’re still fighting for money to repair our devastated city? . . . why are we still being nickled and dimed in our recovery?” (Click here for the transcript of the president’s remarks and the question-and-answer session.) The president gave a fairly lengthy and more or less direct answer—at one point he said “I wish I could just write a check”—pointed out that he has hired first-rate secretaries of housing, education, homeland security, and a top-notch FEMA director in W. Craig Fugate (all of which are true), and concluded:

. . . my expectation is, is that by the time that my term is over, you guys are going to look back and you’re going to say, this was a responsive administration on health care, on housing, on education, that actually made sure that the money flowed and that things got done the way they were supposed to get done.

Mr. Bordenave and other attendees asked serious questions, but the second half of the event was not televised. The media coverage of the president’s already brief visit to New Orleans was cut short by the absurd spectacle of a televised balloon chase across Colorado in which it was believed that a six-year-old boy—henceforth to be known as the “balloon boy”—was being carried away by a UFO-shaped helium balloon (little Falcon Heane was later found hiding in a box in his family’s attic). You can imagine how the networks responded, like salivating dogs.

After less than four hours on the ground, the president flew off to a fund-raiser in San Francisco. Meanwhile, his cabinet secretaries stayed behind to work and learn more about the city’s needs. Shaun Donovan attended a ground-breaking for a new mixed-income housing development, Arne Duncan visited John McDonogh Senior High School, but what impresses us most of all is that White House White House Council on Environmental Quality chairwoman Nancy Sutley went to the Bayou Bienvenue Coastal Restoration Site in the Lower Ninth Ward to review the site of a proposed wetlands restoration project. Ms. Sutley will be in New Orleans again Monday for a hearing on Ocean Policy Task Force at the Aquarium of the Americas (3:30 p.m.) and on Tuesday she’ll take a helicopter tour of the Louisiana wetlands. That may be worth more than a presidential town hall meeting—if she can get some high-level support for quick action on coastal restoration. Ms. Sutley, we wish you well. Come on down anytime.

Again, we’re disappointed in the brevity of the president’s visit, and we wish that other areas of the Gulf Coast, including Mississippi, could also have received the golden glow of his attention. We don’t suppose he was only going out west to collect money for the rebuilding of New Orleans, but we are sincerely grateful that he brought along his good cabinet members, and we thank them for staying behind to do some work on the ground—Nancy Sutley in particular.


Obama’s Debt to New Orleans | Melissa Harris-Lacewell and James Perry in The Nation