- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 15, 2009

UPDATED:

NEW ORLEANS | Even in the midst of President Obama’s first look since taking office at this beaten down city’s rebuilding effort, it was clear Thursday that his thoughts were back in Washington, where he is locked in a fierce legislative battle to overhaul the nation’s health care system.

Mr. Obama vowed that a reform bill will pass this year, and indicated a realization of serious challenges ahead on the issue as well as a dogged determination not to back down from a fight.

“Just in case any of you were wondering, I didn’t think this was going to be easy,” said Mr. Obama at a town hall forum at New Orleans University. “I’m not tired; I’m just getting started.”

Mr. Obama visited a charter school in the Lower 9th Ward, and at the town hall he promised that his administration would not forget about the city while the nation grapples with a variety of domestic and international challenges.

“We will not forget about New Orleans,” Mr. Obama said.

The city, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, seemed mostly to serve as a backdrop as the president was most animated when talking about health care reform, which is entering a crucial phase as legislators on Capitol Hill try to merge different versions.

“The easiest thing in the world would be to just say, ‘OK, well, I don’t want any controversy.’ But that means that the same folks who were struggling before we got elected are going to keep on struggling,” he said. “That’s not why I applied for the job.”

Mayor C. Ray Nagin, who was booed by some in the crowd when introduced by Mr. Obama, said the president sent a strong signal that he was “gearing up for a fight.”

But while the president’s promises drew cheers, he could not escape some harsh questioning from the crowd. One man asked Mr. Obama why the Federal Emergency Management Agency is refusing to pay the full amount of $492 million for Charity Hospital, which was damaged by Katrina. FEMA has pegged the damage at only $122 million, and the matter is in arbitration.

“I expected as much from the Bush administration, but why are we still being nickeled and dimed in our recovery?” asked city resident Gabriel Bordineau.

Mr. Obama acknowledged there are “all sorts of complications between the state, the city and the feds in making assessments on the damages.”

The president then pivoted to pointing the finger at the George W. Bush administration’s initial response to the storm.

“I make no excuses for the fact that the federal government did not work effectively with state and local governments immediately in the aftermath of the storm to make sure that everybody got the help they needed right away,” said Mr. Obama, adding that his administration is “still working through the backlog of problems that existed.”

Shaun Donovan, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, also said the Obama White House is still making up for the mistakes of the Bush administration.

“We have real results on the ground that are fundamentally different from what you saw under the last administration,” he said, after a groundbreaking ceremony for a low-income housing project.

Mr. Donovan said that out of about 15,000 families that were displaced by Katrina and were entered into a disaster housing program, the government has helped all but about 150 find permanent shelter.

But others in the crowd said the recovery in New Orleans is not going as well as it should be.

“From what I have seen, recovery has slowed substantially,” said Hannah Holmes, a 20-year-old student at the university, who lives in the nearby Gentilly neighborhood. “Where I live, half the houses are empty and no one is making an effort to rebuild. At first, there was a rush and now it seems stagnant.”

It fell to 9-year-old Tyren Scott, of Paulina, to provide some levity with the last question of the town hall.

“Why do people hate you?” Tyren asked the president. “They’re supposed to love you.”

Mr. Obama laughed.

“Not everybody hates me now,” he said. “But, you know, I’m a pretty tough guy.”

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