President Barack Obama appeared in New Orleans last week for his first visit since taking office in January. For locals, it was an event that spoke to both the hope and frustration that are inextricably linked to life in the city since Hurricane Katrina.
Obama’s four-hour visit, in which he toured a charter school in the city’s devastated Lower 9th Ward and later spoke across town in another heavily damaged section of the city at the University of New Orleans, was both highly anticipated and heavily criticized.
New Orleanians overwhelmingly support a president who says the right thing when it comes to the city, even though he has yet to stray markedly from his predecessor in terms of making New Orleans’ priorities national ones.
Others have shown consternation at the timing of the president’s visit, wondering why it took him so long to touch down in the city and why, when he finally did, the visit was so brief. Many thought he should have been here on August 29 to commemorate the fourth anniversary of Katrina.
That said, this is a city that revels in a chance at the spotlight, an opportunity to tell its story. Most were excited by the president’s visit and the prospect of winning the national media’s focus for the day. Those hopes were largely dashed, however, by the saga of a six-year-old Colorado boy thought to have floated away in a balloon and, later, by reports of a Louisiana justice of the peace had denied an interracial couple a marriage license on the grounds that children of such couples face societal scorn.
Furthermore, city residents continue to place much stock in a president who won 80 percent of the vote in New Orleans at a time when the general consensus is that most local and state leaders have failed to deliver. Hours before Obama was scheduled to speak Thursday, a snaking line had formed outside the UNO gym where he would hold his town hall meetings, its members sweating in the unseasonably warm conditions for a chance at an up-close glimpse of the president.
“We know how much work is left to be done,” President Obama would say in his 20-minute address that was followed by a half-hour Question and Answer session. “I promise you this, whether it’s me coming down here or my cabinet or other members of my administration…we will not forget about New Orleans.”
The standing ovations and shouts of, “You tell ‘em, baby!” that punctuated Obama’s address erupted into loud boos when the president acknowledged Governor Bobby Jindal in the audience and, subsequently, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. The reaction was a reminder of the low esteem for local elected officials held by New Orleanians in the post-Katrina era.
“If it makes you feel any better,” Obama told the governor, “I get that all the time.”
*Emilie Bahr is a guest blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org. She is a staff writer at New Orleans CityBusiness.