I'm a big fan of President Obama. I think he's doing the best that he can to address a number of domestic and international challenges. I was never one who drank the Obama kool-aid and I don't think he's the Messiah. But his pragmatism generally resonates with me. As the President's popularity is on the decline, it is not inconceivable that Haiti could the crucial negative data point in the way that Katrina was for G.W. Bush. Katrina, rightly or wrongly, signaled that the Bush Administration was incompetent.
Even though by almost all accounts, the Obama administration wanted to avoid President Bush's mistakes in Louisiana, the Obama administration may be less successful than it might like. First, it is not clear to me that the President recognizes that his administration owns this crisis. Even though the President and the United States is not responsible as a legal matter and much less as a moral matter for the current suffering of the Haitain people, my guess is that Haitians, the world, and most importantly Americans are looking to the President and the United States to take the leadership on responding to this crisis. (As a colleague said to me today, why aren't we holding the French responsible?) Consequently, I think we own this. I don't think the administration quite recognizes this fact. This is one of the more fundamental mistakes that the Bush administration made with Katrina. Owning this crisis means that the President and the U.S. will be held responsible not for our efforts but for the result.
Second, the administration took too long to provide the necessary and critical aid to aid. According to this USA Today article, that the United States Air Force is air dropping food into Port-au-Prince. The question is why has it taken to so long. Other places, such as Leogane, Haiti according to this article, still have not seen any aid or rescue. Too many people who survived the earthquake are going to die of secondary infections. CNN is reporting that the estimates of the death toll according to the European Union is around 200,000 people. How many of those could have been saved with quicker action by the United States and UN, we will never know, but we will surely ask.
Third, the Bush administration failed to realize that it had to solve the coordination problem in Katrina. Katrina featured indecision by those at the local level, who felt powerless and were waiting for guidance from the state and the federal government. The state government was waiting on the federal government and the local officials to take leadership. And at the federal level there were many entities and it was clear who was in charge. It was not until General Honore took control that the coordination problem was solved. There is a similar problem in Haiti, only of course much more acute. The Haitian government, the nominal authority, is barely functioning (and that may be an understatement). The U.S. military is in charge of the airport in Port-au-Prince. The UN is in supposed to be in charge of the relief effort. And then there are a whole slew of relief organizations trying to do the best that they can. The lack of coordination and centralized authority has deadly consequences--not an understatement.
Fourth, I've already blogged about the security situation. If that gets out of hand, it will be the straw that breaks the camel's back. It looks like both the UN and the US will send more troops to Haiti. But there is still confusion about who will be in control and how much ground presence will US troops have.
Lastly, the CNN reporters are starting to get extremely agitated by what they see. Remember Anderson Cooper and Sheppard Smith in New Orleans? The Obama administration seems to think that the lesson from Katrina was taught by the great philosopher Kanye West: George Bush Does not care about black people. But the lesson of Katrina may not sympathy or even empathy, but government incompetence.
There are many differences between Katrina and the Haitian earthquake. But there might also be too many similarities to ignore.