Friday, November 22, 2013

Why Are So Many Saying Obama Has Had A "Katrina Moment"? Because He Has.

I've been amused of late by the hyperbolic reaction of Obama supporters to the myriad commentaries arguing the Obama has had his "Katrina moment." Most of the folks making such statements are referring to the failure of the Affordable Care Act rollout. I'm actually proud to have been among the first to have written of an Obama "Katrina moment." In an piece for the Baltimore Sun this Summer, I argued that Obama had lost control of the narrative and that the 1, 2, 3 hits of the Benghazi attack, the IRS scandal, and then the first major leak regarding the monitoring of reporters' phones threatened to undermine his second term. Of Obama I wrote, "Mr. Obama was ...the reliable and competent manager who understood there was a positive role for government in improving people's lives. If Mr. Obama is not careful, that image will collapse in spectacular fashion." And collapse it did, then he found himself in the midst of the failed roll-out with no political capital to draw on.

The main point of contention offered up by the rose colored glasses crowd is that there is no literal comparison between hurricane Katrina and the roll out of the Affordable Care Act, or the IRS scandal, etc... To their argument I say, "well duh." Of course there's no literal comparison. The "Katrina moment" is what those of us who took high school English refer to as an analogy  -  an assertion of similarity, on some point of comparison, between things that are otherwise unrelated. No one is making a literal comparison to Katrina, rather we're making a figurative comparison. 

Let me provide an example of an analogy in action. In late 2010 we learned that US students were trailing students from Shanghai in reading, math, and science - according to the Program for International Student Assessment standardized test. In reaction to the news, President Obama said, "Fifty years later, our generation’s Sputnik moment is back...” People in India and China are now “plugged into the world economy,” and nations with the most educated workers will prevail. “As it stands right now, America is in danger of falling behind.”

Now understand, there is no literal comparison to be made between the US government falling behind the Soviet Union in the space race and our high school students falling behind other nations in math, science, and reading. No literal comparison, but an assertion that, on some point of comparison, our students' poor performance on the tests was the same as the otherwise unrelated Sputnik launch. What was the point of comparison? The US was falling behind.

So why are some now saying Obama has had a Katrina moment? Simple, back in 2005, President Bush's approval rating was already in decline when hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and FEMA botched the response. But Bush's favorability rating had remained strong. In other words, people didn't like the job he was doing, but they still liked him and still considered him to be trustworthy and competent. All of that changed after Katrina and Bush never recovered. Therein lies that point of comparison essential to any good analogy. Heading into the Summer of 2013, Obama's approval rating was in decline, but his favorability rating was very strong. Folks weren't thrilled with his job performance, but they still liked and trusted him. The cumulative effect of the IRS scandal, the ongoing leaks from Edward Snowden, and now the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act and the clearly false assertion that people could keep their existing health insurance has been a collapse in Obama's approval rating AND his favorability rating. People lost faith in his competence and his trustworthiness. I maintain that the Katrina moment came this past Summer, most others say it was health reform. Either way, the analogy is appropriate.

Even after Katrina, Bush maintained the support of a dedicated 35-40% of the public. No matter what, there was a delusional minority convinced that all was well. The folks who are now refusing to accept the relevance of the Katrina analogy are just the members of the Obama minority - the core group who will never be able to accept that Obama is not the transformational deliverer of hope and change that they believed they were voting for. Instead, he is and was a rather conventional politician with no special governing talents. Now, he's a rather conventional politician with no political capital and the very real possibility that he will spend the next three years as a lame duck.  No calm down, he's not literally a lame duck, it's just another one of those analogies.

And no, I do not derive any pleasure from making the analogy or from seeing Obama's popular support collapse. With the exception of the changes to the individual market, I support the affordable care act and want it to succeed. I want comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship. I want No Child Left Behind to be reauthorized, but with an incentive structure and not a penalty structure. I support the Common Core as a replacement for the perverse incentives created by Adequate Yearly Progress and 100% proficiency requirements. All of these issues are on Obama's second term agenda. None of them will happen so long as Obama has a 40% approval rating and an upside down favorability rating. And once a president loses the confidence of the people, it's nearly impossible to earn it back.