- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 15, 2009

NEW ORLEANS | President Obama arrived here Thursday for his first visit as president to check on the city’s ongoing recovery from Hurricane Katrina, as the White House tried to swat away criticism that his administration is not doing enough to help.

It is Mr. Obama’s fifth trip overall to the city, which nearly was wiped out in 2005 and struggled to rebuild following a highly criticized response from federal, state and local government agencies.

The visit comes as the White House is trying to push health care reform toward the finish line, dealing with an ongoing economic crisis and conducting a major review of its Afghan strategy — one of several major foreign policy challenges.

But White House officials said it was important for Mr. Obama to visit here before his first year ended to ensure that local resentment against the government’s response does not carry over from the George W. Bush administration.

“The president made a promise to come to New Orleans and wanted to fulfill that promise as soon as his schedule allowed it,” said White House spokesman Nick Shapiro.

The Obama administration has faced some criticism from groups involved with the Gulf Coast recovery, such as the Institute for Southern Studies, which said recently that the new administration is doing only slightly better in delivering aid and recovery funding. Mr. Obama’s brief stop here — he leaves later in the day for a fundraiser in San Francisco — also has generated some grumbling.

A group of local religious leaders is pressing the White House to push a bill through Congress that would spend $7 billion to create as many as 100,000 jobs for survivors of the storm, putting them to work rebuilding the region.

The bill also would rebuild the Gulf Coast wetlands and increase coordination between local and federal bodies so that “locals have some influence on what gets built,” said Scott Myers-Lipton of the Gulf Coast Civic Works Campaign.

The White House says that $1 billion of the $128 billion in Katrina recovery funds appropriated since 2005, which they said were “stuck,” have been unfrozen by clearing away “bureaucratic hurdles,” and that $1 billion from the $787 billion stimulus package has been “targeted” for almost 1,000 public works projects in New Orleans.

Mr. Shapiro also said that the Gulf Coast is “one of the most visited areas by President Obama’s top administration officials.” More than 20 top government officials have made 35 trips to the region for recovery-focused trips since Mr. Obama took office in January, he said.

“We know the president is committed to rebuilding the Gulf Coast. He’s made commitments. We believe he will follow through,” said Mary Fontenot, executive director of All Congregations Together (ACT) of New Orleans. “He’s only been in there around 200 days.”

Mr. Obama is visiting a charter school in the city’s lower Eighth Ward, one of the hardest-hit areas, before hosting a town-hall forum at the University of New Orleans.

On Friday, the president will go to College Station, Texas, where he will appear publicly with former President George H.W. Bush in an event hosted by Mr. Bush’s Points of Light Foundation, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. The president and former president will co-host a town-hall-style event focused on community service.

“Obama will thank Bush for launching the current era of service that has laid the foundation for Obama’s own service agenda,” wrote Michelle Nunn, head of the PLF, on the Huffington Post this week.

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