The Irony of Government Response to Disasters.

There's a saying about the Republican Party: When they're out of power they argue that government is incompetent and corrupt, and then when they get power they set about to prove it. So failures of government like George W. Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina end up as lessons conservatives use to demonstrate not that we need more effective government but that government can't do anything right, and therefore ... we should elect more Republicans. It would be nice if this argument were met with howls of laughter, but it isn't, in large part because of what we tend to remember and what we tend to forget.

Frequent TAPPED contributor Robert Farley reminds us (via Matt Yglesias) that the Haiti earthquake -- remember that? -- was actually a success for the Obama administration (and obviously for the many other governments and NGOs that are still working to restore the country). For all the problems Haiti still faces, they haven't descended into the kind of chaos and mass post-earthquake deaths many feared. The result? Everyone will forget about it soon, if they haven't already:

The Obama administration’s response to the Haiti earthquake, in my view, has been a resounding success for responsible, capable governance. No one will remember that in six months. Bush’s response to Katrina will endure in the political memory for decades. On the one hand this is (politically) good for progressives, given that conservative efforts to gut governance tend to result in horrible disasters. On the other hand, because policy and execution failures stick in the mind longer than successes, it’s difficult to convince the general public of the importance of a responsible approach to government.

Lots of people are now asking whether the Gulf oil spill is going to be Barack Obama's Katrina. Obviously, the two situations share little in common other than the involvement of the city of New Orleans; for instance, over 1,800 people died in Katrina (according to this report from the National Hurricane Center). One other key difference is that there is only so much even the most competent government officials can do about the spill at the moment, while there were lots and lots of things the administration should have done but didn't during and after Katrina.

Nevertheless, it seems that the better job the Obama administration does with this and future disasters, the less it will matter in the public's perception of what government is capable of.

-- Paul Waldman

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