By Sam Youngman - 10/15/09 12:07 AM EDT
President Barack Obama will make his first trip to New Orleans as president amid criticism he has never visited the hurricane-ravaged Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Obama will hold two events in New Orleans on Thursday, including a town hall meeting, before flying to San Francisco for a fundraiser Thursday night.
Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) wrote to the president this week noting that Obama has not visited the Mississippi Gulf Coast either as president, as a candidate or as a sitting senator.
Taylor told The Hill that while he has sympathy for the people of New Orleans, he views the damage there as the result of a “breach of a man-made levee.”
“If he wanted to see what the hurricane did, then he needs to tour the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” Taylor said.
Editorials in Mississippi newspapers were also critical of the president’s decision to skip the Magnolia State.
An op-ed in The Clarion-Ledger asked, “Mississippi Gulf Coast not worth a look, Mr. President?”
“The Mississippi snub brings to mind some of the most withering criticism directed at former President George W. Bush back in 2005 … when Bush initially viewed the damage over three states from the window of Air Force One,” wrote Sid Salter, an editor at the newspaper.
The White House refuted any criticism that the president has not done enough to help the affected region.
Administration officials noted that more than 20 Cabinet members and senior officials have made a combined 35 trips to the Gulf Coast. That includes trips to Mississippi by Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director Craig Fugate and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan.
“This has been a destination unrivaled almost by any other for Cabinet officials, for administration officials,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Wednesday. “I think if we’re judged simply on what we’ve done, which is all we’ve ever asked that people do, I think they’ll understand and see we haven’t just made promises, we’ve delivered.”
Since Obama took office, Cabinet and senior administration officials have been to Mississippi five times. That’s compared to 22 trips to Louisiana, four to Alabama and four to Texas.
When asked why the president was not visiting Mississippi, Gibbs said: “I don’t think this is about rhetoric.
“I think this is about results and action,” he said. “I think if you look, as many have done, into that area, into that region, about what’s been helpful, I think you’ll see state and local officials echo what I just read. I think that’s what’s important, and I think that’s what the president, his Cabinet and his team will continue to focus on.”
White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said Wednesday that since Obama took office, FEMA has obligated more than $160 million for Mississippi recovery and more than $2.5 billion in stimulus funds have been announced for the state.
Even though Shapiro said the administration “knows challenges remain and has taken steps to learn from the mistakes of the past,” Obama’s commitment to the state’s recovery “is demonstrated by his tireless work to cut through bureaucratic red tape and improve coordination among federal agencies and local partners who have too often failed to collaborate in the past four years.”
Gibbs and other administration officials have been quick to point to the praise Obama and his team have received from Republicans in the region, like that of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Doug O’Dell, former President George W. Bush’s recovery coordinator.
And the White House got another assist Wednesday from Republican Rep. Joseph Cao’s (La.) office when the congressman’s aide told The Hill that Cao “absolutely doesn’t agree with the notion that [the president] is coming here for political posturing.”
“He has been very engaged throughout his administration,” Cao spokeswoman Princella Smith said. “We have a good relationship with them, and it is not based on party affiliation.”
Democratic lawmakers from the region were also quick to jump to the president’s defense.
“The president has made significant commitments to Mississippi’s rebuilding and mitigation efforts, and I’m sure this will not be his last trip down to the region,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said.