So, About That Whole 'Obama's Katrina' Thing

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 14:  U.S. President Barack Obama speaks on the Affordable Care Act in the White House briefing room
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 14: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks on the Affordable Care Act in the White House briefing room November 14, 2013 in Washington, DC. The president announced that canceled insurance plans would be renewed for a year. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The hot newscycle ornament everyone's talking about on Friday is an article by Michael D. Shear in The New York Times that essentially advances the idea that the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act is "Obama's Katrina."

In fairness to Shear, this is a meme his piece has been saddled with, due to the typical reductio ad absurdum of the modern political media. All he was hoping to convey was that recent mishegas about Obamacare has created a situation in which perceptions of the Democrats' ability to govern efficiently have been undermined.

That's fairly true. Fresh from a government-shutdown standoff in which they drew a line in the sand, held it with public support, and briefly revived some hope that their party might outperform expectations in the upcoming midterms, Democrats are now in a panicky disarray, and may sign on in large numbers to a legislative "fix" that could potentially make matters worse.

But the funny thing about everyone who's since reduced this whole idea to "Obama's healthcare law is exactly like that time President George W. Bush and his administration failed to respond to a disaster that killed many hundreds of people," is that they are also right. Obama will pay the same personal cost over the Affordable Care Act's bungled rollout as Bush did for his Katrina response. Which is to say, no cost at all.

I don't think people actually realize just how toothless the whole "Obama's Katrina" metaphor really is. Yes, it's pretty exciting to have so many people finally admit that Bush's Katrina response was a bad thing. But what are they really saying? Basically, this: "Oh, man, if things keep going the way they're going, President Obama runs the risk of ending up a super-wealthy American celebrity who will want for nothing and whose family will always have health insurance." I've said this before, but I will happily roll out a crappy website that everyone hates if I could get the same deal.

For me, the promulgation of an "Obama's Katrina" metaphor firmly underscores the basic lack of real stakes involved for all of the people having that conversation. Obama is going to live well and without concern for the rest of his life. The vast majority of the lawmakers involved in the ongoing debate over the matter will as well. So will most of the pundits currently batting this meme back and forth. They'll all be fine. Really, super fine, actually. They're going to have terrific, largely worry-free lives.

And I'm not even sure that the Affordable Care Act is necessarily destined to be some terrifying loss -- though everything basically hinges on this website getting fixed in a very timely fashion. Should it get up to patch and start delivering customers to the exchanges in big numbers, then the Obamacare rollout could end up mattering just as much as that first debate between Obama and Mitt Romney -- the one that, you know, ended the Obama presidency. Regardless, I'm pretty sure that when all is said and done, no one will be rebuilding homes in the Lower Ninth Ward because the health insurance market got disrupted.

If everything falls to ruin, however, then sure -- the Affordable Care Act's failings will shadow Obama for the rest of his life, manifesting mainly in the way everyone will talk about the next president's failings as his or her "Obamacare."

There has to be a great story out there about what life is like for normal human Americans who aren't affluent political celebrities or who don't enjoy a luxurious sinecure in Beltway punditry. But the saddest part of all of this is that the Affordable Care Act's woes have created only a brief interest in the woes of ordinary Americans, and just how terrifying it can be for one's life to depend on the kindness of insurance providers in the individual market. Right now, if you can proffer a letter attesting to the fact that you've lost your health insurance, chances are you can finally get a reporter who had never previously evinced interest in the matter on the phone.

It wasn't always this way. A July 2009 study conducted by Families USA found that between January 2008 and December 2010, in the teeth of the economic downturn, over 44,000 Americans were receiving notice that they'd be losing their health insurance every week. The same people breaking story after story about those losing their coverage now had better things to do back when it really mattered. As with almost any story that we could tell about the rampant, constant, tragic economic insecurity of the average American, it only seems to swell up as a Thing That Matters when such plight can play a role in the Beltway parlor game of who's winning and who's losing.

That's what makes the whole "Obama's Katrina" construction such a multi-layer insult to normal people. It makes the assumption that Bush actually suffered some real material loss in the hurricane that hit New Orleans. He didn't. It further assumes that some similar hardship is coming to Obama's doorstep. This is only true if we define "hardship" as "no hardship at all." It glibly trivializes the real people who have suffered in both instances -- those who suffered some sort of devastation in the Gulf region, or those who have been dealt a hard blow in the insurance market. Finally, it only underscores the wholly transient nature of the media's concern for the welfare of ordinary people. If their suffering can't be translated into a telenovela about the electoral troubles of affluent political celebrities, it doesn't merit coverage.

In the end, when we talk about how Hurricane Katrina is like the Afforable Care Act, we're talking about the most ephemeral damage in the world -- the damage to a president's legacy. This is important to some people -- perhaps it really matters very deeply to Presidents Bush and Obama. But you try telling a Katrina survivor, or someone who knows the perils of not having affordable health care, "Well, the good news is that the rich politician on whose watch this happened has taken a real hit to their reputation, so you have that going for you." Hopefully your health insurance will cover the cost of having your jaw reset.

[CORRECTION: This post originally stated that "over 44,000 Americans were receiving notice that they'd be losing their health insurance" between "January 2008 and December 2010." We meant to say that over 44,000 Americans were receiving notice that they'd be losing their health insurance EVERY WEEK during that time. We have updated the post, regret the error, which made things seem better than they were. The complete Families USA study can be found here.]

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