“Obama’s Katrina”—The Amazing Power of Just Two Words

by David Heitman

If ever there were proof of the ability of just two words to frame an event’s impact on a president’s reputation, “Obama’s Katrina” is it. A harsh judgment is evoked with just thirteen letters and an apostrophe.

And the apostrophe is important. In connotes ownership.

“Katrina” has become code for a disaster that, while not one’s fault, comes to define one’s incapacity for decisive, effective action. People seem to naturally embrace this kind of verbal shorthand. And the shorter the shorthand the better. In scenarios as catastrophic as the BP oil platform disaster, something within us demands an answer. Or at least someone to blame.

Fair or unfair, the comparison with the Bush administration’s lethal mishandling of Hurricane Katrina’s impact was inevitable.

Even though Press Secretary Robert Gibbs hasn’t called for our advice, if he’s reading this blog, I’d suggest that he go after this one head on. “This isn’t Obama’s Katrina,” he should say, “and here are three reasons why…”

With words like “Obama’s Katrina” you have to seize them back and use them against your detractors. Sort of like grabbing the ears of an attacking mountain lion. Hold on tight and keep the thing at arm’s length long enough, and you just might survive until help arrives.

For Obama, that help will come in the form of BP getting the thing fixed. Until then, every utterance of “Obama’s Katrina” lays on another layer of blame and responsibility. While it took a couple weeks after the disaster for the term to surface, it’s now become terminology used every day, throughout the day on television, talk radio, print media and the Web.

The only thing worse than two powerful words is two powerful words being repeated over and over.

Public frustration is close to bursting the administration’s PR blowout protector. And if that happens, “Obama’s Katrina” may become a lasting remnant in the American psyche. So much so, that the Bush legacy will actually get a breather. Americans can mentally handle only one Katrina at a time. Everyone except people in Louisiana that is. They don’t have a choice but to suffer both.

Charles Krauthammer astutely pointed out that America’s cult of presidential hyper-culpability for all that is right or wrong in the country is inherently unrealistic, and largely unfair. But he also points out that Mr. Obama himself on June 3, 2008, having gained the delegate count to be nominated for the presidency, declared that:

“This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

Nineteen words I’m sure he wishes he could take back. They sounded messianic if not megalomaniacal then. They sound mocking now.

Only time will tell if “Obama’s Katrina” will live on in infamy or not.

For the sake of the planet, the president and the folks in Louisiana, let’s hope it doesn’t.