By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 16, 2009
NEW ORLEANS, Oct. 15 -- In his first visit here since taking office, President Obama sought Thursday to reassure frustrated residents that his administration is working aggressively to repair the hurricane-damaged city and return people to their jobs and homes.
Speaking at a town hall meeting near the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, Obama recounted what he said was "good progress" during the first nine months of his administration. But he was quickly put on the defensive by one resident who said he was still frustrated by the slow pace of the economic and physical recovery around him.
"I expected as much from the Bush administration," said Gabriel Bordenave, 29. "But why are we still being nickel-and-dimed?"
Obama responded that his government is "working as hard as we can as quickly as we can," but he complained about "complications" in working with state and local governments to speed resources to rebuild hospitals, schools and other facilities.
"I wish I could just write a check," he said. "You say, why not? There's this whole thing about the Constitution." He added that in Washington, "everyone will attack you for spending money, unless you are spending it on them."
Obama acknowledged to the crowd that a lot of work remains, and he promised that he would never "tolerate the usual turf wars between agencies."
"The damage from Katrina was not just caused by a disaster of nature but by a failure of government -- a government that wasn't adequately prepared and didn't adequately respond," he told the audience of more than 1,000 people at the University of New Orleans.
"And so I promise you this," he added. "Whether it's me coming down here or my Cabinet or other members of my administration -- we will not forget about New Orleans. We will not forget about the Gulf Coast. Together, we will rebuild this region and we will build it stronger than before."
After the town hall, freshman Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao (R-La.) praised the administration's efforts to help the residents of his district.
"They have been very responsive to our requests," Cao said. "The years before that, there were just frustrations upon frustrations. Since the new administration came . . . FEMA has been in lock step with us."
Obama received a warm and raucous welcome from the crowd, which booed loudly when the president introduced Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) and again when he introduced the city's mayor, C. Ray Nagin (D).
"You guys are a feisty crowd," the president cracked.
Obama was feisty as well, repeatedly straying from his prepared remarks to offer sharp-edged warnings aimed at political adversaries in Washington who oppose his health-care efforts.
"You know, I wasn't kidding about it being hard. But you notice, I don't quit," he said as he pledged to pass health-care reform this year, to thundering applause. "Those folks who are trying to stand in the way of progress, let me tell you: I'm just getting started."
Obama pushed back against local criticism that his trip here -- with only two stops -- was too brief, noting that there have been repeated visits by his Cabinet members to the region.
And he emphasized that his administration has taken swift action to confront the city's housing and infrastructure problems by working to shake free federal money.
"We came into office to a bungle of red tape," said Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, who traveled to New Orleans with Obama. Donovan said that 30,000 people remained in temporary homes when Obama took office, a number that is now just 250 people.
Irwin Redlener, a Columbia University professor and member of the National Commission on Children and Disasters, said that Katrina had a huge impact on kids, 20,000 of whom he said remain "in limbo" because of the 2005 storm. Obama has offered "a big difference in attitude," he said. "I definitely think it's better. The question is, 'Will it be fast enough?' "
Before the forum, Obama toured the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology, the first school in the hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward to reopen after the devastating floods four years ago.
But it was a young boy at the end of the town hall -- 9-year-old Tyren Scott, a fourth-grader at Paulina Elementary School -- who stole the show, declaring his love for the president and asking why so many people hate Obama.
"Well, I did get elected president, so not everybody hates me," Obama said, adding that Tyren shouldn't take all the heated rhetoric too seriously. "I'm a pretty tough guy."