Last week, as the story about the earthquake in Haiti became the story of the relief effort in Haiti, opinion makers and political fortune tellers everywhere couldn’t help but compare the disaster there to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the breached levees in New Orleans.
This false premise—that Haiti is the new Katrina—first appeared in a post written by Newsweek’s Howard Fineman a day after the earthquake. In the piece titled, “Why Hurricane Katrina Looms Over Obama’s Relief Efforts in Haiti,” Fineman anointed Haiti as Obama’s chance to redeem the federal government’s failure to anticipate the levee breaks and the mismanagement of the Katrina relief effort. If Obama doesn’t get Haiti right, Fineman warned, it could become his albatross—just as Katrina became an albatross for George W. Bush:
… The racial context of New Orleans is writ large in Port-au-Prince. Katrina cost George W. Bush what little standing he had among moderates in his own party in part because the shocking images of suffering in New Orleans were so racially imbalanced.
Now the Obama administration’s competence and compassion will be tested in a similar racial context—and with a much worse infrastructure. Obama and his aides understand all of this. The president was out early today with a strong statement about American efforts to deal with the aftermath of the devastating Haitian earthquake.
The whole narrative that this is Obama’s Katrina, in the sense that it’s his big chance to act presidential during a major natural disaster, is fundamentally flawed for several reasons—the main one being that the earthquake in Haiti did not take place on U.S. soil.
The Guardian’s Dan Kennedy helpfully offered a map to prove this very point and dug up more examples of journalists furthering what he calls the “ludicrous notion” that “just as George Bush failed the test of Hurricane Katrina, so must Obama pass the challenge of Haiti.” He called out Fineman at Newsweek for “prattling on as though Haiti were simply the 51st state” and noted other Katrina/Haiti conflators like Chris Good at The Atlantic, who wrote that “the symmetry between Haiti’s devastating earthquake and Hurricane Katrina is undeniable.”
Or deniable. As Kennedy writes:
To compare efforts in Haiti to the Bush administration’s bungling of Katrina is media malpractice, plain and simple.
But others continue to ignore the fact that Haiti is not a part of the United States, and that the U.S. bears it no obligation other than the honorable American tradition of Doing the Right Thing—an honorable tradition precisely because it is not an official policy, but an act of goodwill.
Economist Tyler Cowen chimed in yesterday with the declaration that Obama’s presidency will not be defined by the financial crisis or a healthcare debacle, not even by those two wars we’re fighting in the Middle East, but by a quagmire in Haiti.
The U.S. certainly has a real interest in Haiti’s recovery, but Cowen ascribes the government’s responsibility there with the level of significance that marked the failed Katrina relief effort. (h/t Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic.)
Obama now stands a higher chance of being a one-term President. Foreign aid programs are especially unpopular, especially relative to their small fiscal cost. Have you noticed how Rush Limbaugh and others are already making their rhetoric uglier than usual? It will be a test of the American populace; at what point will people start whispering that he is “favoring the other blacks”?
Just as it’s not easy to pull out of Iraq or Afghanistan, it won’t be easy to pull out of Haiti.
John McQuaid, a former reporter at the New Orleans Times-Picayune who famously wrote a series predicting the levee breaches and devastating floods visited on New Orleans by Katrina, takes the Haiti = Katrina comparison personally. In a post deconstructing the meme for his True/Slant blog, McQuaid wrote:
This is a dangerous comparison not only because Haiti is not New Orleans, but because New Orleans is not Haiti. Yes, Louisiana has more than its share of corruption, poverty and social dysfunction. But to liken it to Haiti is to buy into the insidious notion that has plagued New Orleans before and after Katrina: that it is a geographical, cultural and demographic outlier, and thus irrelevant — and at worst not really part of America at all.