In his first visit to New Orleans since last year's election, President Obama today reassured residents that the government would continue to help rebuild the city damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, although he noted that much work still remains to be done.
"Katrina may have swept through the city but it did not destroy this community, and that is because of you, the people of New Orleans," Obama said at a town hall event at the University of New Orleans, where this year's graduating class will be the first that attended the school after Katrina struck.
In the face of criticism that the president's first visit to the city came nine months after he took office and lasted less than four hours, the administration has highlighted that Cabinet members have made 35 trips to the Gulf Coast since January and they have freed up $1.5 billion in recovery funds from bureaucratic red tape.
"I promise you this," Obama said. "Whether it's me coming down here or my Cabinet or other members of my administration, we will not forget about New Orleans. We are going to keep on working. We are not going to forget about the Gulf Coast. Together we will rebuild this region and we will rebuild it stronger than before. It is going to be stronger than before."
But the president noted that the initial government response under President Bush was far from adequate.
"It has now been just over four years since that terrible storm struck your shores," Obama noted. "And the days after it did, this nation and all the world bore witness to the fact that the damage from Katrina was not caused just by a disaster of nature, but also by a breakdown of government, that government wasn't adequately prepared and we didn't appropriately respond."
Today, the president said one of his first moves in January was to tell his administration to make the hurricane-ravaged region a top priority.
"I wanted to get it right and I wanted us to be ready," he told the crowd. "And so far, I'm pleased to report that we have made good progress. We got a long way to go, but we've made progress."
"We are committed to making sure that a disaster like Katrina does not happen again," he said.
However, at least one member of the crowd was skeptical about the president's reassurances, asking, "Why is it four years after Katrina we're still fighting with the federal government for money to repair our devastated city?"
"I mean," the gentleman continued, "I expected as much from the Bush administration, but why are we still being nickeled and dimed in our recovery?"
Obama replied, "I know, since a lot of these problems have been going on since Katrina happened, people understandably feel impatient. On the other hand, these things were not all going to be fixed tomorrow. So we are working as hard as we can, as quickly as we can, to process through many of these issues.
"I wish I could just write a check," he stated.
When the audience member asked, "Why not?" Obama quipped, "You know, there's this whole thing about the Constitution and Congress."
"My expectation," Obama concluded, "is that by the time that my term is over, you guys are going to look back and you're going to say, 'This was a responsive administration on health care, on housing, on education, that actually made sure that the money flowed and that things got done the way they were supposed to get done.'"
The seventh and final member of the audience to ask the president a question was a fourth-grade boy who wondered, "Why do people hate you?"
Replied the president, "First of all, I did get elected president, so not everybody hates me," before adding, "What is true is, if you were watching TV lately, it seems like everybody's just getting mad all the time. And I -- you know, I think that you've got to take it with a grain of salt. Some of it is just what's called politics."
But the crowd's harshest reactions this afternoon were reserved for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. When the president introduced Jindal, the crowd booed lustily.
"Bobby, first of all, if it makes you feel any better, I get that all the time," Obama said, before noting when the audience booed Nagin a minute later, "This is a feisty crowd here."
In a town hall forum that lasted a little over an hour, the president touched on a variety of other issues, from health care reform to climate change to immigration.
"We're going to get health care done this year," he stated in the event's most lively moment. "Now, just in case any of you were wondering, I never thought any of this was going to be easy. You know, I listen to sometimes these reporters on the news and, 'Well, why haven't you solved world hunger yet?' Why -- why hasn't everybody done it? It's been nine months. Why? I never said it was going to be easy...I don't quit. We get this stuff done. We keep on going until we get it done. I don't quit. You know, let me tell you, those folks who are trying to stand in the way of progress, they're all -- let me tell you: I'm just getting started. I don't quit. I'm not tired. I'm just getting started."
After the event, the president left for San Francisco for a fundraiser later this evening, before an event tomorrow in College Station, Texas.