Home Political News Commentary: Obamacare, Katrina parallels are right – to a point

Commentary: Obamacare, Katrina parallels are right – to a point


By John Krull


John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com

John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS – The new cliché for the chattering classes is that the botched roll-out of the health care web site is President Barack Obama’s “Katrina.”

Commentary button in JPG - no shadowThat’s a reference to the hurricane that tore through the Deep South and ravaged, among many other things, George W. Bush’s presidency. It’s shorthand for the kind of mistake or setback that completely derails a presidency.

At some level, the parallel works.

After Hurricane Katrina, Bush’s public approval ratings went into a spiral from which they never recovered. As he was leaving office, his fellow Republicans conspired to keep him away from their 2008 national convention for fear that he would further taint the brand and make it impossible for the GOP to compete again for the White House.

Following the roll-out of the health care site, Obama’s numbers also have plunged. They’re a bit higher than Bush’s were post-Katrina, but they’re lower than they have been at any the other point in Obama’s presidency.

If the numbers don’t recover, remaining days of Obama’s presidency likely will be the same limp, stumble and fall to the finish line that Bush’s was.

But the numbers might recover, which is where the parallel is incomplete.

Americans indicted Bush for failing in regard to Katrina because they thought he didn’t care enough to concern himself about the people dying and the hundreds of thousands of lives affected by the disaster.

Once tragedy struck, Bush had no easy way to undo the damage. He couldn’t bring those who had died back to life. He couldn’t wave a wand and make the waters flow backwards, preserving the homes, memories and happiness of the people whose lives were disrupted by a force of nature.

Because he had no easy or immediate way to ease the suffering or grief, Bush had no real way to fix his political problem.

In Obama’s case, if the web site gets fixed, his poll numbers will start to climb. If he can’t fix the web site, then the numbers likely won’t climb.

That means Obama has more control over his fate and the last portion of his presidency than Bush did.

That’s the problem with these quick-and-easy historic parallels. Too many pundits pull up George Santayana’s famous quote – “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – and think they have found a magic window into present circumstances. Generally, their pop-history point of view tells them that events are leading directly to a point that would confirm their ideological prejudices.

But that’s not the way history works.

This is particularly true of supposed presidential turning points. I’ve seen a lot them along the way – enough to know that there isn’t a clear pattern, ideological, partisan or otherwise.

The Iran hostage crisis was supposed to destroy Jimmy Carter’s presidency. (It did.)

The Iran-Contra weapons-hostages-controversy was supposed to send Ronald Reagan’s presidency into the ash bin. (It didn’t.)

The decision to renege on his pledge not to seek tax increases was supposed to cripple George H.W. Bush’s presidency. (It did.)

The flawed attempt to reform health care during his first term in office was supposed to doom Bill Clinton’s presidency. (It didn’t.)

The lackluster response to Katrina was supposed to shatter George W. Bush’s presidency. (It did.)

And now the screwed-up health care rollout is supposed to derail Barack Obama’s presidency. (Who knows?)

History isn’t a trick lens, a magician’s dime store version of predestination.

It’s more like a river. We can judge our general direction by the movement of its currents.

We can know, for example, that race remains a divisive issue in American culture. Or that Americans continue to be ambivalent about government’s size and power.

The reason history isn’t infallible is that the human element remains the great variable.

Reagan and Clinton triumphed over their great setbacks because they rose to meet the challenges those setbacks presented. Carter, Bush I and Bush II faltered and failed because they didn’t.

Barack Obama will triumph or fail depending upon whether he meets the challenge the problem-plagued health care rollout presents.

Either way, his success or failure will be determined by how he responds to adversity.

Such responses shape many things in life.

Including history.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.




  1. One was caused unplanned natural disaster, the other was caused by a political disaster. There is no comparison.

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