Beyond the damage and receding flood waters, President Barack Obama saw a very different picture of Louisiana on Tuesday than when the previous chief executive visited the state following a disastrous storm.
Obama was criticized last week by GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump and other Republicans when he wouldn’t cut short his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, to visit areas hit hard by recent flooding in the Bayou State. White House aides say Obama has been focused mostly on ensuring the federal government’s response is helping people on the ground.
While speaking last week to volunteers in Greenwell Springs, Louisiana, Trump said Obama “doesn’t want to come [because] he is trying to get out of a golf game.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Monday did not name Trump, but said “there are some who are going to criticize the optics of the president making that the priority.”
“The president is willing to assume that criticism as long as the federal response is up to par,” Earnest said. “And we’ve been pleased that, thus far, that’s what’s happened.”
Obama told reporters he is not thinking a lot about politics during his final months in office.
Obama to Congress: Louisiana Flooding May Need More Funding
The White House is eager to make their case that what matters most in the immediate wake of a disaster is a swift, organized and effective federal response. That is happening now in Louisiana, aides say, adding that the opposite was true in the George W. Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, in 2005.
“There were Democrats and Republicans in Louisiana who were critical of the federal government’s response in the immediate aftermath of the storm,” Earnest said. “What’s different about this situation is that in response to this flood, you’ve got Democrats and Republicans in Louisiana praising the federal response. And I think that’s the most significant difference.”
Obama spoke there Tuesday, flanked by the state’s Republican senators, David Vitter and Bill Cassidy.
Obama told residents that even after the media leaves, the federal government will stay behind to help them. So far, Washington has doled out $127 million to help Louisiana residents, he said.
Once existing federal funds for the response to the flooding run out, “that’s when Congress may be called upon to do more,” the president said. He noted that members of the state’s congressional delegation accompanying him might be asked to chat with their party’s Hill leaders to ensure the state gets what it needs to rebuild.
“I know that you will rebuild again,” Obama said. “And what I’ve seen today proves it.” He urged donations to private and philanthropic organizations to ensure “people are getting the help that they need.”
What’s also different this time are the racial makeups of the areas Obama and Bush visited once they arrived.
Katrina made landfall in southeastern Louisiana on Aug. 29, 2005. Bush flew over the area two days later, and visited Orleans Parish on Sept. 11.
When he did, he plunged into an area that was closet to 70 percent African-American before the massive storm moved through. Obama toured an East Baton Rouge Parish that is more evenly split, almost 50 percent white and 45 percent black.
Pundits have been quick to note that the two weather events — what at one point was a Category 5 hurricane, and a massive rainstorm — cannot easily be compared. Nor can the needed federal responses.
Also different are the constituencies that Bush and Obama encountered.
Orleans Parish favored Democratic Vice President Al Gore heavily over Bush in the 2000 presidential election (76 percent to 22 percent). Four years later, the parish was even more anti-Bush, going to Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry by 56 points.
Obama on Tuesday will visit an East Baton Rouge Parish that twice narrowly favored him over his GOP general election foe — though surrounding parishes went for Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2008 and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012.
The White House, however, says politics did not play into the timing of the trip, with aides eager to note the recent praise from Republicans. Earnest pointed to comments from Louisiana Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, whom he labeled “a colorful, noted Obama critic.”
“I’ve got lots of political disagreements with the president of the United States, but what I’m most interested in is seeing the president … prioritize the safety and livelihood of the people of my state,” Nungesser said.
“It’s always nice to have the president visit as long as the team here on the ground is working closely with the local elected officials and the governor and getting the job done,” he said when asked about the timing of an Obama visit. “That’s what we are worried about.”