Michelle Pilecki and Harry Shearer are on the money that John Edwards basically skirted the substance of the problems New Orleans faces in his Lower 9th Ward announcement. We don't hear about the nexus of government screwups that led to the disaster and continue to this day. We don't hear about how these might be fixed. We don't hear that both of his "two Americas" got hammered by Katrina and are still struggling through ongoing snarls of red tape.
That said, I'm a bit torn. I like Edwards, and I like it when national attention is focused on New Orleans, even if it's a little off-point. (Let's have a "New Orleans primary" and bring Hillary, Obama, McCain, Giulani - all of them - down to the 9th Ward or St. Bernard!) So I'm willing to forgive Edwards the omissions. He was painting in broad thematic strokes - that's the purpose of a presidential campaign announcement, after all.
So while it wouldn't make sense for him to get into the cause of the 17th Street canal breach, I thought the current plight of New Orleans fit into Edwards' big themes pretty well.
The main focus of his announcement (transcript here) was a call to public service. Basically, he said that Americans can and should take both individual and collective action to address problems - including seemingly intractable ones like poverty that have languished in an era when government action is widely discredited (thanks in part to Katrina). New Orleans fits the bill pretty well - rebuilding and long-term protection are difficult, national-scale problems. Yet - more so than poverty or universal health care coverage - they are solvable problems, if only the national will and some political moxie could be focused on them.
He also, correctly, took President Bush to task for the fact that this has not happened. Bush has visited New Orleans and the Gulf coast more than a dozen times and signed off on billions in aid. Yet there is still a national leadership vacuum on New Orleans. Why? Money and photo ops don't solve problems. Like nuance, Bush doesn't "do" government, as we've seen with Katrina, Iraq, and a dozen other things. For a complex problem like this one, you need to be knocking heads together to get the recalcitrant bureaucracies to MOVE. Only the president, or someone with the president's personal proxy, can do this. Edwards noted this in his response to a reporter's question:
[Bush] should have had somebody at a high level coming into his office every day - if I'd been president, I would have had somebody coming into my office every morning, and I would say to him, "What did you do in New Orleans yesterday?" And then the next day, "What did you do yesterday? What steps do we need to take? What are we not doing? What are the people in New Orleans telling us that we're not doing?"
And that's the -- unfortunately, that's the kind of thing that didn't happen. And as a result the federal government, while there's been money allocated -- and I'm telling you things everybody in New Orleans already knows, but of course the country needs to hear it -- all this money's been allocated and very little of it has gotten to the ground. You just don't -- you ride around and walk around out in these neighborhoods, you don't see much change.
So, yes, the answer is yes, there is a very significant role that the federal government needs to be paying, that it's not paying right now -- playing, playing, I'm sorry.
A stock answer? Perhaps. If Edwards is elected, would he actually do this? Who knows. But at least somebody's pointing out that this is what should be happening, and isn't.