Obama On The Defensive In New Orleans

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In his first trip to New Orleans since taking office, President Obama defended his administration against complaints from some residents of the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast that federal help for recovery hasn't improved much since he took office.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

President Obama got a reminder this week that all the problems he inherited are increasingly his responsibility. He made his first trip to New Orleans since taking office. In a town hall meeting, the president heard complaints about the slow recovery after hurricane Katrina. These are now complaints about a government led by him, and he took the chance to answer charges that he hasn't done much as president so far.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports from New Orleans.

DON GONYEA: Usually, when the president gives a speech or holds a town hall, he builds to a big ending. But his New Orleans town hall was barely started when the president fired back at critics who've said he's not done anything yet. That was a common refrain when he was announced as the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize last week. Yesterday, Mr. Obama told his audience, change never comes easy.

(Soundbite of applause)

President BARACK OBAMA: Those folks who are trying to stand in the way of progress�

(Soundbite of cheering)

Pres. OBAMA: �they're all�

(Soundbite of cheering)

Pres. OBAMA: �let me tell you. I'm just getting started.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Pres. OBAMA: I don't quit. I'm not tired. I'm just getting started.

GONYEA: The response established that this was a friendly crowd for the president. Mr. Obama also made this promise on the big issue for this audience.

Pres. OBAMA: We are committed to making sure that a disaster like Katrina does not happen again�

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: �and that means, in Washington, a focus on competence and accountability. And I'm proud�

GONYEA: He did not mention former President Bush by name. He didn't have to. The line was cheered, but that doesn't mean people here aren't still looking for some answers to some tough questions, like this one.

Mr. GABRIEL BORDENEVA(ph): Why is it four years after Katrina, we're still fighting with the federal government for money to repair our devastated city?

GONYEA: That's Gabriel Bordeneva of New Orleans, a 29-year-old, unemployed Tulane Law School graduate. He had a list of concerns that he read from a piece of paper.

Mr. BORDENEVA: We've been without a full service hospital for the last four years because FEMA is offering $350 million less than the true damage cost incurred. I mean, I expected as much from the Bush administration, but why are we still being nickeled and dimed in our recovery?

GONYEA: President Obama responded that some of these things have built up for years, that there's a backlog, and that they won't be fixed tomorrow. But he said his administration is cutting through red tape. And even though Mr. Obama was in New Orleans for less than five hours yesterday, he cited dozens of visits to the region by Cabinet officers and other senior administration officials. The president then added�

Pres. OBAMA: We are committed to working with the city and the state to make sure that we have world-class health facilities here in New Orleans. But�

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: �what is also true is that there are all sorts of complications between the state, the city, and the feds in making assessments on the damages. Now, I wish I could just write a check�

GONYEA: At that point someone in the audience interrupted, yelling, why not? Meaning, why not just write a check?

Pres. OBAMA: Well, you know, there's this whole thing about the Constitution and Congress�

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: �and, you know, I - not to mention the fact that, yeah, I'm always - you know, one of the interesting things you find out about being president is everybody will attack you for spending money unless you're spending it on them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: Which brings the president back to those earlier remarks, that none of this is easy. The White House says he came to New Orleans to listen, but the people here will be watching closely to make sure the change promised means real improvements for this still-struggling city.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, New Orleans.

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