NEW ORLEANS -- President Obama is in for a welcome change of weather when he arrives here in New Orleans today for his much-hyped -- and for critics, much-delayed -- visit, trading the cold rain of DC for the tropical winds that say "fall is here" in the Gulf Coast.
But it's unlikely he'll receive a warm reception from city residents, including from the activists and leaders who were inspired by his message of change -- and in many cases, worked tirelessly for his campaign.
Obama's rhetoric about Katrina was especially soaring on the campaign trail, like his February 2008 speech at Tulane University where he pledged: "I promise you that
when I'm in the White House I will commit myself every day to keeping
up Washington's end of this trust [to rebuild the Gulf]. This will be a
priority of my presidency."
New Orleanians, so deprived of hope after three years of stalled and misguided recovery that left thousands of them locked out out rebuilding their home city, were desperate to believe in these words. Which is perhaps why they were especially devastated when, for example, it was revealed the spring economic recovery stimulus bill not only rejected such visionary ideas as the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act, but that Louisiana's 2nd Congressional district -- which includes New Orleans -- would receive the least federal money anywhere in the country.
This first misstep would prove damaging: As the Institute found in a report we released on Katrina's four-year anniversary in August, a survey of 50 leading on-the-ground community leaders who have been the engine of recovery gave Obama merely a "D+" for his Gulf Coast efforts so far. Today, Michael Sherer at Time magazine points to the Institute's survey in noting the mixed reception Obama is likely to receive.
We received a flurry of emails after releasing the report: Wasn't Obama doing a lot better than Bush? Hadn't he sent down many staff to meet with Gulf leaders? Didn't he announce a new panel to address the critical problem of coastal land loss, which not only destroys habitat but also deprives New Orleans of its best natural buffer for future storms?
Yes, yes and yes, say Gulf leaders. But these are not the metrics by which they want Gulf Coast recovery to be judged.
Rebuilding communities, bringing people home, ensuring access to health care and good schools: these are the basic building blocks of renewal which have, for many, come too slow and too little -- and for the 25% of the city that hasn't returned, hasn't come at all.
"We're still hopeful," one long-term New Orleans community leaders told me yesterday. "But now we realize that, just like everything else, it's not going to come easy -- we're going to have to organize and fight for everything we want to get."
One personal bright spot: Our plans for a Freedom Journalism School to train new media journalists who can dig up the key stories on what's happening in places like New Orleans -- and help spread the word to a broader audience -- generated a lot of excitement here. People are hungry for free and fearless reporting about the challenges they face and how they create a recovery that works for all.
Today, Obama has a chance to disprove his critics here -- to show that for him, Katrina wasn't just a campaign-trail political football, but an ongoing crisis for tens of thousands of people who are counting on Washington to live up to its promises.