"Passive indifference is as bad as active malice"

So sayeth Barack Obama. Those poignant words were uttered on ABC’s This Week two weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf coast. Pretty good sauce for the gander in light of the current administration’s refusal to suspend regulatory burdens and enlist foreign assistance after the Horizon rig blew up and left oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. Now let’s consider the context:

“Whoever was in charge of planning was so detached from the realities of inner city life in New Orleans…that they couldn’t conceive of the notion that they couldn’t load up their SUV’s, put $100 dollars worth of gas in there, put some sparkling water and drive off to a hotel and check in with a credit card,” Obama said.

There seemed to be a sense that this other America was somehow not on people’s radar screen. And that, I think, does have to do with historic indifference on the part of government to the plight of those who are historically African-American.”I guess the insinuation is that George Bush should have personally seen to it that the black residents of New Orleans who ended up stranded after Katrina hit had been evacuated. And he didn’t, in large part, because he was detached from the reality of life in inner city New Orleans.

Things might have turned out much differently if Bush could have conceived that inner city residents couldn’t just pack up and leave like suburban residents. Such indifference to the plight of those who are historically African-American! Unlike New Orleans’ African-American mayor Ray Nagin, who issued a mandatory evacuation order less than 24 hours before the storm struck. And left hundreds of buses sitting parked to be flooded along with the rest of the city. Or Kathleen Blanco, who asked Bush to declare a federal state of emergency in Louisiana less than 48 hours before the storm struck.

I’m no expert in disaster response, so maybe less than two days is a realistic amount of time to expect the federal government to execute a full-scale evacuation of the entire city of New Orleans. Or maybe the problem is a culture of dependency that requires an army of federal agents removing residents at gunpoint to enforce a mandatory evacuation. Or maybe, considering the magnitude of the disaster, a chaotic and disjointed response is the only possible outcome.

Here’s a timeline courtesy of Think Progress. These words from President Bush on September 13, the day after Obama’s words above, caught my eye:

“Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government,” Mr. Bush said. “And to the extent that the federal government didn’t fully do its job right, I take responsibility.”

I wonder if Obama will make a similar declaration tomorrow night when he speaks to the nation about the on-going oil spill. Especially since responding to off-shore drilling disasters is entirely the responsibility of the federal government. Somehow I get the feeling Mr. “I Can’t Suck It Up With A Straw” has suddenly found a new respect for the limits of presidential power when responding to emergencies.

Besides, this issue is different because of the complexities and number of agencies involved. Just ask Senator James Clyburn:

I really believe that when you have so many entities involved in this, then it becomes a problem of trying to get everybody on to the same page and focus on to a process that seems sometimes to be contradictory if you go from one agency to another.

If this were only one or two agencies involved in this process, that would be one thing. But there must be 12, 14, almost 20 entities involved, and so managing that gets clumsy sometimes. But I do believe that the president is much more hands-on at this point than he was at the beginning.

I don’t think any of us knew the real extent of the spill, because we were getting information from BP that now we find out was not quite true, in fact, was far from the truth.The “We didn’t understand the extent” defense didn’t work well for Bush in the aftermath of Katrina, is it supposed to be a convincing argument now? Federal emergencies are by their very nature events of such a magnitude that multiple agencies – local, state, and federal – are involved in the response. Why is it with a Democrat in the White House “we miscalculated the impact and coordinating the response is difficult and convoluted” suddenly becomes a viable excuse?

Passive indifference is as bad as active malice. I eagerly await Think Progress’ timeline of the Horizon spill to help us determine if Obama was acting maliciously or incompetently. Either way, we can be reasonably sure it will have no record of Obama saying, “To the extent that the federal government didn’t fully do its job right, I take responsibility.”

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