In general, explanation is easier when you have a reference point, which is why political reporters are quick to refer back to previous presidencies.
At the same time, events ought to be understood on their own terms, and you can obscure more than you explain by forcing an analogy. That the main problem with this piece in today’s New York Times, which uses the Bush administration’s failed response to Hurricane Katrina as the frame for the troubled rollout of President Obama’s health care law:
Barack Obama won the presidency by exploiting a political environment that devoured George W. Bush in a second term plagued by sinking credibility, failed legislative battles, fractured world relations and revolts inside his own party.
President Obama is now threatened by a similar toxic mix. The disastrous rollout of his health care law not only threatens the rest of his agenda but also raises questions about his competence in the same way that the Bush administration’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina undermined any semblance of Republican efficiency.
There’s no question that HealthCare.gov has been a fiasco—a blunder of a website that has embarrassed the administration and tarnished Obama’s brand. At the same time, it’s important not to overstate the scope of the damage. Right now, the problem with the website is that it can’t accommodate everyone who wants to buy health insurance. That is a serious issue, but not the worst mistake ever made by a president.
By contrast, George W. Bush’s response to Katrina comes close. Hurricane Katrina was one of the deadliest storms ever to hit the United States. It killed more than 1,800 people, destroyed tens of thousands of homes, caused billions of dollars in property damage, and nearly sank a major American city. And the Bush administration’s response was criminally negligent, a basic failure of duty that should haunt everyone involved.
Despite several days of memos and warnings to administration officials that Katrina would be a major storm, that the levees had been breached, that flooding had began, it took two days for President Bush—who was on vacation, spawning a series of photo-ops that would look awful in retrospect—to begin to organize the federal response. The Federal Emergency Management Agency had little in the way of direction, and critical resources in the area went unused. As late as September 1, three days after Katrina made landfall, there were no coordinated efforts in the area. “This is a national emergency. This is a national disgrace,” said Terry Ebbert, then director of emergency operations for New Orleans, “FEMA has been here three days, yet there is no command and control. We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can’t bail out the city of New Orleans.”
Confronted with this avalanche of incompetence, administration officials shifted the blame, more attuned to their political fortunes than to the thousands who languished in overcrowded shelters without adequate food, water, or sanitation, forced to deal with disease and violence. It was more than an embarrassment, it was one of the worst domestic disasters ever seen in a presidency. Indeed, the only reason it doesn’t define Bush’s tenure is that it’s overshadowed by the war in Iraq, which stands as one of the worst foreign policy disasters in U.S. history.
HealthCare.gov is not in the same ballpark, it’s not in the same league—it’s not even in the same sport. Failing to build a website that can reliably provide health-care coverage to consumers—a noble goal hindered by flawed implementation—is categorically different than a non-response to a natural disaster that claimed thousands of lives.
Yes, both were problems of mismanagement, incompetence, neglect, and disinterest. Hence the analogy. But overall, the comparison is superficial, subsuming serious differences for the sake of a banal point. As far as parallels go, it’s glib, useless, and—when you consider the terrible damage done by Katrina—pretty shameful.