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September 04, 2005

Katrina and Magical Thinking About the Presidency

Our system of government in this country is a federal one. Each of the fifty states are sovereign entities, with their own constitutions, laws, courts, police agencies and armed forces (National Guard units are under the command of the state's governor until they are "federalized" and called to active duty in the Army or other service¹). Like the EU's ill-fated proposed constitution, with its principle of subsidiarity, the concept is simple: government decisionmaking should be pushed down to the lowest level, closest to the people directly affected, whenever possible. While the DHS and its subsidiary agency FEMA have responsibility for coordinating federal assistance to local governments, the primary responsibility (and decisionmaking authority) for responding to emergencies rests with state and local officials.

In spite of the clear evidence that Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin had responsibility for making the key decisions about responding to Hurricane Katrina, the usual suspects are blaming the disaster on President Bush. (To be fair, Blanco and Nagin have only been in office a couple of years and the legacy of corruption and incompetence which surround local government in the state of Louisiana can hardly be laid at their doorsteps.)

It is traditional to blame the President for anything bad that happens during his watch or, conversely, to give him or her credit for good things that happen even if their policies had nothing to do with bringing them about. During the Clinton years, it was impossible to hear a speech by a Democrat that failed to mention the millions of jobs "created" by the administration during the internet bubble. (Created how, exactly?) But blaming one's opponents for anything bad that happens while claiming credit for anything good is just normal partisan politics.

In primitive societies, people used to explain natural disasters in terms of the gods expressing their anger at human behavior. In the modern world, we seem to have defaulted into the view that everything happens because of the President. Is the stock market going up? The President must be doing a good job. If the price of oil is rising, it's the President's fault. If food prices are rising, again, the President must have fallen down somewhere.

Is such widespread stupidity the media's fault? Perhaps. Surely this trend is exacerbated by the media's mania for interpreting every event in terms of winners and losers. But part of it is due to our collective desire for simple explanations. If anything bad happens, we need to find someone to blame. Most of the time, however, it's a little bit more complicated than that.

The role of a responsible press in a democracy is to help our citizens see that the simplest explanation is rarely correct and never complete. Will the press play that role in the wake of Katrina? We shall see.


¹   For some discussion of the legal status of the National Guard and the legal restrictions on the use of active duty federal troops in the US, see Appendix B: Operations and Legal Considerations in the Continental United States of Army field manual FM 3-19.15 Civil Disturbance Operations, dated 18 April 2005 and for a recent analysis of the history of the National Guard and its dual responsibilities to both federal and state officials, see pages 6 to 14 of this 26 August 2005 opinion and order by U.S. District Judge John Padova in the case of Rendell et al. v. Rumsfeld, challenging the legality of proposed National Guard base closures under the Base Realignment and Closure commission.

September 4, 2005 at 09:27 AM | Permalink


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OK, agreed that the president is not personally responsible for everything going on, good or bad, in the country. He is the hiring manager, though, for the people who do bear a large part of the responsibility for what happens.

This contemptuous and contemptable second-rater deserves every bit of the uphill-flowing shit he is getting for the pack of prevaricating incompetents he has put in control of our country.

One more thing - if the endless series of disastrously bad decisions flowing out of this White House were being perpetrated by some democrat president we love to hate, I have no doubt that you and all the other administration apologists would be crowing non-stop about the spectacularly bad management at play here.

Posted by: exrepublican | Sep 6, 2005 8:54:07 AM

Yes, you are probably right, If Clinton had appointed that nitwit Michael Brown, I would be raising holy hell about it.

I disagree, however, with the notion of an "endless series of disastrously bad decisions" from the White House. Chertoff seems to be a reasonably competent guy. The whole concept of creating the DHS was largely forced on the administration by Democrats in congress, though I think the idea made (and makes) sense. (Though Bush was right to drag his feet on undertaking a major reorganization of our domestic security apparatus in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when nobody was really sure what we dealing with and the last thing we needed was an FBI, et al. focusing on defending bureaucratic turf rather than the American people.)

But there is plenty of blame to go around on this one. I agree that Brown should be fired immediately, and probably some lower ranking people as well. But Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco deserve their share of blame as well.

Frankly, as with 9/11, people have trouble imagining the unimaginable. In hindsight, the idea of using hijacked airliners as massive cruise missiles was diabolically simple. But before it was done, few could conceive of such an audacious plan. Similarly in New Orleans, people had heard so much for so long about the perils of living in a city below sea level in a hurricane-prone area that the reality of the threat faded into the backgound. It did not help that the region had experienced few major storms since Camille in 1969 and many false alarms and near misses.

In the months ahead, I am sure we will get a better handle on what wrong in the wake of Katrina. Perhaps Hillary's suggestion of a 9/11-style commission should be appointed to do an independent investigation. Clearly, there is a lot we can learn from what went wrong so that we don't repeat the same mistakes next time.

Posted by: Spartacus | Sep 6, 2005 9:35:46 AM

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