BATON ROUGE, La. — Here is the presidential election, in the mud and the underwater homes and piles of garbage and broken furniture wafting mold that barely grabbed the attention of a nation rapt by campaign shake-ups and foundation emails.
President Barack Obama is here, shadowboxing with the suspicion that he came only because Donald Trump did last week, which the White House says is laughably not true, but which still produced another round of “He’s golfing!” froth with the president putting off the trip until after he was back from his Martha’s Vineyard vacation. (Jill Stein came too, though no one seems to have noticed.)
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Also here is the awful reality of disaster relief, which comes much more slowly than political points as Congress fights over offsets for federal disaster funds.
Hillary Clinton’s usual role is here, too, as she once again reacts from within the safe confines of a bland prepared statement, emailed to reporters, letting the White House lead the way just enough to avoid saying anything but leaving wiggle room in case something goes wrong.
But through this swirl of politics, Obama insisted his visit on Tuesday had nothing to do with his presidency or the next one.
“One of the benefits of being five months short of leaving here is that I don’t think much about politics,” Obama said, after walking a block down a devastated neighborhood and exchanging handshakes and hugs with homeowners.
There have been, by a conservative count, about two dozen proclaimed “Obama’s Katrina”s in the last seven-and-half years. With this natural disaster — the worst since Hurricane Sandy — the analogy is stickier: another slow-moving catastrophe, though on a much smaller scale, where the emphasis is on human suffering and not the climate change that he’s warned repeatedly will create more freak weather.
But Katrina wasn’t Katrina because of nature’s fury: it was Katrina because of the massive mismanagement from George W. Bush’s administration, heckuva-job-Brownie running Federal Emergency Management Agency and the people peeing on the floor of the Superdome.
The Washington-led response the past few weeks has been very different, with Obama repeatedly taking time to praise the work of his FEMA director, whom he pointed out has saved him a lot of trouble by collaborating with local officials so well on every federal response since he came into office.
Still, four years ago this fall at the end of his presidential campaign, he was hugging Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as he quickly toured the Hurricane Sandy damage. This time around, his allies eagerly pointed to the Louisiana governor, a Democrat, urging him to put off a visit and initially criticizing Trump for coming last Friday, on the trip he scrambled to goad Obama into.
But even as there’s been widespread praise for Obama’s federal disaster relief, some credit is going to Trump.
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said the work of pushing Congress to fund grants and a water mitigation project has just begun, and credited the Republican nominee for forcing the issue forward.
“That’s what this visit is about,” Cassidy said, watching the president begin his neighborhood tour. “That’s what Trump’s visit was about. Remove the politics: Trump focused national attention, which had been lacking. It doesn’t take a cynic to suggest that it may have triggered some other visits.”
Cassidy said he’s backing Trump, because he doesn’t want four more years of the economic policies that he said have defined Obama’s presidency. He then stood with Obama as he made his remarks in the driveway of a house that had been cleared of dolls, a big screen television, pieces of cabinets and dry wall that had been piled up where a local resident said they’d been swallowed by four feet of water.
Not that Obama ever competed in Louisiana in 2008 or 2012, or that Clinton is this year, or any Democrat running for president has a hope to anytime soon. There’s a lot of Trump country around here.
Obama’s trip is part of a federal aid effort that includes $127 million already being allocated for groceries and repairs. Trump’s got here first, on Friday, popping in along with donating a truck of supplies and maybe some cash, with emphasis on maybe.
Monday, the White House said this isn’t the time to talk politics or optics, and that this trip certainly wasn’t about politics or optics. Tuesday, the president spent a total of three hours here, rode with Gov. John Bel Edwards, took a walk down a ravaged street in front of the cameras, gave a statement in front of the assembled press and thanked first responders. Before leaving, he also met at the airport with the families of some of the police officers killed in the targeted mass shooting last month, as well as the family of Alton Sterling, whose killing by police earlier in July was caught on video.
Only in praising the work that officials like those do would Obama brush against some politics.
“That does indicate why it’s important to take the federal government seriously, federal workers seriously—there’s a tendency sometimes for us to bash them and to think that they’re these faceless bureaucrats,” the president said.
“The president is used to people trying to score political points, even in situations where they shouldn’t,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday, “and the president certainly believes this is the kind of situation where we’re talking about lives lost, we’re talking about a community being upended that it’s an appropriate time to put politics aside and focus on our responsibilities as Americans.”
Flying here on Air Force One, Earnest pointed out that Obama’s response had been “praised by Republican and Democratic Louisiana officials alike,” which includes the Republican lieutenant governor, who joined Edwards in greeting the president at the airport as they got in to ride in an SUV (no Beast limo down here) to tour the damage.
Obama said that he’s confident FEMA has the money it needs in the short term, and he’s counting on the state’s Republican senators and local Republican Rep. Garret Graves to persuade their leaders and their conferences to provide any additional funding needed.
“Sometimes, once the flood waters pass, people’s attention spans pass,” Obama said. “This is not a one-off.”