Many have parsed what President Barack Obama’s critics mean when they charge that the handling of the crisis on America’s southern border is “Obama’s Katrina.”
The president’s supporters are quick to note that this comparison is misleading and unfair. Hurricane Katrina drowned an entire urban center. American citizens died waiting for federal and state aid. Thousands of Americans, mostly of meager means, were trapped in a dying city. Some of them did not make it out alive waiting for their countrymen to save them. In that sobering moment, much of the promise of the United States was betrayed.
It is impossible to know how many children crossing the American border have died as a result of their trek across forsaken deserts. At least one 15-year-old Guatemalan boy lost his life as the result of dehydration, but there has not been a death toll comparable to Katrina. In terms of body count, these two crises are not comparable.
But this is all Obama’s supporters have going for them. The president’s approach to this crisis is distinct from George W. Bush’s approach to Katrina insofar as the current president is comfortable campaigning on, rather than addressing, an ongoing disaster.
Real Clear Politics columnist Carl Cannon published a dispassionate column on Sunday comparing Bush’s reaction to Katrina, and the garment-rending, hyperbolic outrage his response to that crisis inspired among his liberal opponents, and Obama’s response to the nightmare on the border. Cannon found that there has been little seriousness in Obama’s approach to this crisis whereas Bush’s approach to Katrina, while imperfect, was at least empirically measurable.
Cannon recalled how Bush’s critics erupted in indignation when the White House published a photograph of the president surveying the devastation from Air Force One. Entertainers like Michael Moore and Kanye West accused the president of racism and callousness. Bush’s Democratic adversaries in Congress, including then Senator Obama, were no kinder.
In hindsight, little of this seems fair. What Bush saw as he flew over the battered region shocked him. The next day, he publicly pledged $10.5 billion in federal aid, enlisted his father and Bill Clinton to help in recovery efforts, and spoke about the tragedy from the Rose Garden. The next day, he headed down there, where he literally put his arms around shell-shocked survivors, many of them black people. Bush returned again in mid-September and made a nationally televised address from Jackson Square in New Orleans.
When he ran for president, then-Sen. Barack Obama seemed to forget all that. All he cared to recall was the flyover, which is more than he’s done on the Texas border this year.
The president has used this crisis to push for a $4 billion supplemental funding request, but has stipulated on several occasions that these funds had to be passed by Congress before there would be any emergency response to the flood of unaccompanied children crossing the border. That does not even resemble a “response” to an acute crisis. In all past disasters of this scale, the response comes first and without hesitation. The petty bickering over how to pay for it is a secondary concern.
Obama’s galling and politicized response to the border crisis does not stop there.
When he’s not berating Congress for not passing his ballooning supplemental request fast enough, Obama harangues Republicans in the House for not passing the Senate’s immigration reform bill – a legacy initiative Obama promised would be one of his accomplishments in his first year in office.
He has ignored Democratic lawmakers who demanded the president see the border for himself, preferring instead to maintain his distance from the crisis so as not to be too closely associated with it.
The president and his administration are happy to blame the current crisis on a Bush-era anti-human trafficking law which treats children coming into the country from non-contiguous nations differently from Mexican immigrants, but they have not demonstrated that they think changing this law to address the calamity it has supposedly precipitated should be a congressional priority.
All this paints a picture of a commander-in-chief who views this “humanitarian crisis,” as Obama called it, to be more of a political problem than a genuine source of apprehension and fear for America’s border state residents, border enforcement agents, and the immigrant children trafficked into the United States.
Obama’s adversaries and allies agree that, quite unlike Bush, the president sees this crisis as a political opportunity.
“There is every sign he let the crisis on the border build to put heat on Republicans and make them pass his idea of good immigration reform,” The Wall Street Journal‘s Peggy Noonan submitted. “It would be “comprehensive,” meaning huge, impenetrable and probably full of mischief. His base wants it. It would no doubt benefit the Democratic Party in the long term.”
Francis Wilkinson, a liberal Bloomberg View columnist, concurred.
“I think he wants this to be a big problem,” Wilkinson told MSNBC’s hosts on Thursday. “I think he wants this to be such big problem right now that Congress has to deal with it, and that the media’s focused on it, and that the American public is focused on it.”
Bush’s approach to Katrina was criticized by his allies and opponents alike, and some of that criticism was deserved, but he never treated the situation in New Orleans as though it was a political opportunity. That is a grotesque abuse of the public trust, but this seems to be the calculation the president and his advisors made.
“Although Obama probably doesn’t have to go to the border personally to be an effective leader, he may owe George W. Bush an apology,” Cannon concluded.
Like Katrina, Obama’s successors will likely study his response to the situation on the border as a case study in how not to address a crisis. The border disaster is, however, not Obama’s Katrina. The president’s refusal to perform the responsibilities associated with his role as the nation’s chief executive makes this episode far worse.
An earlier version of this post claimed the Guatemalan boy who died of dehydration while crossing the border was 11-years-old.