By Craig Hardegree | 

Symbolism over substance. It’s simple. It’s easy to grasp. It fits on a bumper sticker for people who can’t fit a paragraph into their minds full of football stats.

It causes people to question the patriotism of a perfect example of American values simply because she failed to put her hand over her heart, but not question the patriotism of four thugs whose actions on the world stage sullied American exceptionalism.

A national disaster requires a two-pronged response from a president: 1.) symbolic tour-of-damage; and, 2.) substantive federal response.


Monday, August 29, 2005
Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana. Several hours later, the City of New Orleans which had successfully weathered the natural disaster, was devastated when the man-made federally-maintained levees broke in 50 different places causing the most epic flooding since Noah grounded his Ark on Mt. Ararat.

Bush was in Crawford, Texas on Day 28 of his vacation.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005
Bush cut Day 30 and Day 31 off his vacation and flew back to Washington. On the way back, he spent 35 minutes looking out the window of Air Force One, surveying the damage to the Gulf Coast. Photographers in the traveling press corps were invited to take photos of this symbolic tour-of-damage to disseminate to the public.


The problem for Bush wasn’t that he was on vacation — presidents can and often do handle crises from places other than the White House.

The problem for Bush was his substantive federal response was irredeemably inept and unconscionably bungled.

Comparing Bush’s FEMA response after post-Katrina flooding, with President Obama’s FEMA response after the current flooding, The Advocate — the same Louisiana newspaper which on Thursday, August 18, called for President Obama to cut his vacation short to come to Louisiana for a photo op — had only praise for President Obama’s substantive federal response:

“The president acted prudently in officially declaring a disaster for the flooded part of the state, a key step in advancing federal aid. We’ve been heartened so far by the active involvement of Craig Fugate, head of Federal Emergency Management Agency, a far cry from FEMA’s hapless Michael Brown in the days after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was slated to visit Louisiana today to assess the damage.” ~ The Advocate, Thursday August 18, 2016.

And even if President Obama had followed the newspaper’s request and cut the final two days from his vacation so he could be in Louisiana the very next day, on Friday, August 19 — the same day Trump went to Louisiana and spent 49 seconds helping unload a truck — it would have only meant that his symbolic tour-of-damage would have taken place four days earlier; on Friday, August 19, instead of on Tuesday August 23, as planned…it would not have affected President Obama’s substantive federal response, which has been stellar and exemplary in every way.

The same day (Thursday, August 18) that the Louisiana newspaper published its editorial calling for the symbolic tour-of-damage to occur four days earlier than planned while simultaneously praising President Obama’s substantive federal response, it published a news article with this headline:

Gov. John Bel Edwards: ‘I’m not complaining in any way about our federal partnership.

Also on Thursday, national news outlets were reporting Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards as saying he had been in daily contact with the White House and had received quick responses to every request. And while noting that Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was visiting Louisiana that very day and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate had been in the state on Tuesday, Governor Edwards said he preferred that President Obama wait a week or two before coming to Louisiana because a presidential visit exhausts so many local police and first-responder resources.


And the problem with Bush choosing a fly-over for his symbolic tour-of-damage, had nothing to do with the timing. It wouldn’t have mattered if he had done it the same day the levees broke or two days after or two weeks after or another round of golf later or mountain bike excursion later — he wasn’t criticized for when he did his symbolic tour-of-damage; he was criticized for how he did his symbolic tour-of-damage.

His chosen method made him appear aloof; as if he didn’t want to get his cowboy boots muddy; as if he were too good for the people on the ground; as if he didn’t care.

Four years earlier when 3,000 predominantly-white people died on 9/11, Bush personally went to the scene and stood on the rubble.

But when 3,000 predominantly-black people were killed or unaccounted for in the post-Katrina flood waters, he did a fly-over.


Bush’s Katrina response was his undoing; the beginning of the sad end of his presidency. For many, it was the first indication that his legacy would be that of a failed president — a surprise to those of us who thought ignoring warnings before 9/11 and invading the wrong country in retribution had already thoroughly established it.

Regardless, conservatives understood the unraveling of Bush’s presidency after his response to Katrina. They watched as his presidency crumbled and his approval rating cratered.

And they desperately wanted to see the same happen to President Obama. So each year, they have tried their hardest to create…

“Obama’s Katrina”

  • July 2009 — Not fixing the Republican-broken economy fast enough to satisfy Republicans: Obama’s Katrina


But they have spectacularly failed.

Because “Katrina” isn’t something others can do to you.

It’s something you do to yourself.

Bush was inept with his substantive federal response; President Obama has been adept.

Bush botched his symbolic tour-of-damage; watch and learn Tuesday.

President Obama won’t have to manufacture emotion or stage his appearance.

Because not in existing memory have we had a president with such a heart of empathy; soul of compassion; and mind of concern for others.

Conservatives are left to pitch a fit only about whether the symbolic tour-of-damage should be filmed on Friday or Tuesday.

It will be yet another failed attempt to manufacture “Obama’s Katrina.”


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