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James Carville: America’s best success

Headed into this century, America was the most ascendant nation since Ancient Rome — we led the globe economically, militarily, academically, culturally, etc. But let’s face it, the 21st century hasn’t been too good to us so far.

The last 14 years have been marked by wars, recessions, natural and man-made disasters and hyperpartisanship, to name a few.

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But out of that turmoil, there has also been triumph. And you’ll find it in the unlikeliest of places.

A persuasive case can be made that the best American success story of the 21st century is the New Orleans turnaround — a city and region that weathered Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Ike and Gustav, then the Great Recession, then the BP oil spill, and more.

I know what you’re thinking. This is some Carville hyper-Louisiana/homer/self-promoting B.S. And I can’t blame you for thinking that before you hear the facts. I am biased, but I know that objective observers would agree with me.

I moved to New Orleans in the summer of 2008, when it was far from certain if the city would ever recover fro Katrina. The rebuilding was stalled, to say the least, and people were uncertain of the direction of the city. In March 2009, a Tulane University and Democracy Corps poll showed 61 percent of residents thought the city was on the wrong track and, more strikingly, that one in three residents were considering leaving New Orleans.

In one weekend in early 2010, the Saints won the Super Bowl and then-Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu was elected mayor in a landslide. It was as if the city that care forgot finally found a way to win again. And it hasn’t stopped.

According to the U.S. Census, New Orleans is the fastest growing major city in America. Forbes magazine called it the nation’s No. 1 “brain magnet.” You can’t ride into a neighborhood in the city without running into construction, both public and private.

The economy is strong, bolstered by billions in investments in infrastructure and the largest port system in the country. Companies from GE Capital and national retailers are once again investing here. Entrepreneurship is nurtured — according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, per capital business start-ups exceed the nation by 56 percent. And the all-important tourism industry is back. According to a recent study, the city welcomed more than 9 million visitors in 2012, a number not seen in nearly 10 years. Those visitors spent $6 billion, the highest visitor spending in the city’s history.

The city’s new primary care-driven healthcare system, developed in the wake of Katrina, is improving health outcomes. Even quality-of-life metrics like the number of restaurants is improving. Pre-Katrina, there were 809 restaurants in the city. Today, there are 1,366 open according to New Orleans food critic and historian Tom Fitzmorris.

The mayor and the City Council work well together and have now passed four balanced budgets in a row, improved bond ratings, cleaned up corruption in contracting and improved basic government services.

Perhaps as remarkable an improvement as any, however, is the education system, which was one of the worst in the country pre-Katrina. According to education nonprofit Educate Now!, 91 percent of students are in charter schools, the highest in the country.

New Orleans has gone from 62 percent of students attending failing schools to just 5 percent. ACT scores and graduation rates are up and school dropout rates are down — now better than the national average.

In the words of the mayor, New Orleans has become the nation’s laboratory for innovation. And even brighter days are ahead.

I am not going to be Pollyanna here. The city has some deep, historical and social issues it has to deal with: high poverty, high black male unemployment and an undeniable crime problem with a murder rate well above the national average for more than 30 years. But even on those fronts, New Orleans is making progress. In fact, murders year to date are down more than 25 percent and the city is on pace to have one of the lowest number of murders since 1971.

None of this is lost on the people here.

Today, the sentiment from 2009 has reversed, with 65 percent of voters now saying the city is going in the right direction and only 26 percent saying it is still on the wrong track. Landrieu has a 74 percent approval rating as mayor.

The upbeat public mood in New Orleans is particularly striking given what is happening elsewhere in the United States, as voters express historic dissatisfaction with Congress. With more than 70 percent of Americans believing that the country is headed in the wrong direction and Congress earning all-time low approval ratings, the optimism among New Orleans voters and the confidence that it places in its government stand out. Couple that with its progress on key, objective outcomes, and it’s easy to see why New Orleans should be a heralded success story during a very difficult time for our country.

Carville is a chief political correspondent for ARISE Television. He also serves as a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, where he lives with his wife, Republican strategist Mary Matalin. His column will appear twice a month in The Hill.