Obama's 'Katrina moment'

It has been a rough week or so for the Obama administration. From Benghazi to the tapping of reporters' phones to the IRS admitting that it targeted conservative groups for extra scrutiny, the press is in a frenzy, and many are questioning President Barack Obama's future. If the president does not soon regain control of the narrative, he is likely to suffer the same fate as his predecessor — a collapse in public confidence and a vastly diminished second term. To understand President Obama's situation, we need to explore a little presidential theory and some recent presidential history.

While still a college professor, Woodrow Wilson wrote of the presidency, "Let him once win the admiration and confidence of the country, and no other single force can withstand him, no combination of forces will easily overpower him." What Wilson failed to contemplate was what happens once a president loses the admiration and confidence of the public. George W. Bush provided the answer to that question in late 2005.


The day after Election Day 2004, President Bush confidently stated that he had earned political capital in the election and intended to spend it. It was a bold statement for a man who been reelected with a bare 51 percent majority. And Bush had anything but a successful second term. His ambitious plans for Social Security reform foundered; he was thwarted in his efforts to achieve immigration reform; and much of his policy decisions regarding Iraq and Afghanistan were made via the veto — a weapon wielded in weakness, not in strength. In November 2006, Republicans lost control of the House and Senate, and Mr. Bush's political capital was nowhere to be found.

What happened to Mr. Bush between Election Day 2004 and the Democratic victories in 2006 is a cautionary tale for the Obama administration. Election 2004 was as much a John Kerry rejection as it was a Bush re-election. Mr. Bush had presented himself as a competent manager and a reliable leader — a stark contrast to Mr. Kerry. That image collapsed in spectacular fashion in late 2005.


In late August of that year, Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans. What followed were many weeks of media coverage of looting, violence, displaced people, and thousands stranded in the Superdome. As the coverage continued, criticism of the government's response mounted. Criticism tended to focus on problems of mismanagement by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and a perceived lack of leadership.

Earlier this year, I argued on this page that to lead effectively, contemporary presidents need support from federal courts and Congress, the steady allegiance of the public, and accordance with contemporary public opinion about the proper size and scope of government. Mr. Bush had argued for a scaled-back government, yet Katrina undermined that argument. Fairly or not, he became the focal point for public dissatisfaction with the Katrina response, and his image as a competent and reliable manager collapsed. Then, in October, the special counsel appointed to investigate the possible outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame indicted Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. The president lost the admiration and confidence of most of the country — he never got it back.

This brings us to President Obama's current troubles. Like Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama was reelected by a bare 51 percent majority. Exit polls showed most voters favored full or partial repeal of the president's signature legislative accomplishment, health care reform. Much like the Bush 2004 strategy, the Obama campaign spent millions defining Mitt Romney as an unfit leader. Mr. Obama was portrayed as 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.

When House Republicans decided to reopen investigations into the White House and State Department response to the attacks on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya, few thought it would inflict any serious damage to the president. Then came an admission from the IRS that it had unfairly singled out conservative groups for scrutiny during the 2012 campaign. Now the press had two scandals to focus on. Then, the Associated Press wiretap story made landfall. The Department of Justice had secretly obtained two months of phone records for roughly two dozen AP reporters. With the emergence of a third scandal, the press has seemingly turned on an administration that it had long treated with kid gloves.

The initial response from the White House has been to deny any knowledge by Mr. Obama of these misdeeds. The White House is engaged in a confusing two-step; the president is responsible for the executive branch, but he is not responsible for the actions of executive branch employees or officers. In reality, it makes no difference whether Mr. Obama was directly responsible for or knowledgeable of any of the actions alleged. The catastrophe of the Katrina aftermath was very much the fault of former officials Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and FEMA Director Michael Brown. The Valerie Plame investigation never revealed any evidence that members of the Bush administration illegally leaked her identity to the press. But perception mattered more than reality, and the buck stopped with President Bush.

The perception emerging now is that President Obama is a detached bystander in his own administration. Rather than embracing his role as chief executive, he is busy with the "permanent campaign." Worse, the IRS and Justice Department wiretap stories undermine a central tenet of the president's agenda: that government can be a trusted and competent partner in improving lives. These scandals bolster conservative arguments about government as a malevolent force.

This is President Obama's Katrina moment. If he cannot regain control of the narrative, he will face the same loss of public confidence suffered by President Bush. If that happens, Mr. Obama will spend the next three years relying on little more than the power of the veto to influence the agenda of others. Much as 35 percent of the public stood with George W. Bush until the very end, Mr. Obama can expect to maintain the support of a very committed segment of the public. But legacies are not built on the cultlike adherence of a passionate and deluded minority. Just ask George W. Bush.

Todd Eberly is coordinator of public policy studies and associate professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland. His new books is "American Government and Popular Discontent: Stability without Success." His email is