The Cable

5 Times Obama Was About to, but Didn’t, Have a Foreign-Policy ‘Katrina Moment’

Pundits love to speculate when Obama will have his "Katrina moment." So far, they've been disappointed.


President Barack Obama is in New Orleans on Thursday to mark the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the monstrous storm that flooded much of the historic city; left some 1,833 dead, according to FEMA; and caused $108 billion in damage. The response to the storm is one of the self-admitted low points of former President George W. Bush’s time in office. But in the years since, the term Katrina moment” has taken on a broader political meaning: an event that would ultimately cause the public to lose confidence in their commander in chief.

Columnists, analysts, and pundits have repeatedly used the term “Katrina moment” to forecast potential pitfalls in Obama’s legacy. Thankfully, none has ended in the tragedy that the 2005 storm became. But as the country reflects on the wide-reaching failures during the government’s response to Katrina, it’s worth noting how liberally, and mistakenly, commentators have applied the term to foreign-policy events during Obama’s presidency.


The Washington Examiner, Sept. 16, 2013. Conservative writer Conn Carroll makes the somewhat convoluted argument that if Obama didn’t pick Janet Yellen to be the chief of the U.S. Federal Reserve (he did), Syria could somehow become the president’s Katrina.

Carroll called Obama’s flailing on whether to bomb Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “a disaster of unprecedented proportions for the president” and noted that the “debacle” came almost exactly eight years after Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. However, Carroll wrote, the last straw for Bush’s credibility came a month after Katrina’s landfall, when the White House announced its ultimately rejected nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court — and linked that to Obama’s then-pending selection of Yellen to the Fed.

“Unless Obama caves to his base and nominates Yellen, there still is a possibility Syria could become Obama’s Katrina,” Carroll wrote.

The Ebola outbreak

Investor’s Business Daily, Oct. 2, 2014. Andrew Malcolm argues that the disease could become Obama’s Katrina if it spread throughout the United States. It was contained to a handful of cases.

“Now comes Ebola, which has the real potential to be Obama’s Katrina,” Malcolm wrote. “President Bush didn’t cause the hurricane, just as Obama did not cause the worst outbreak yet of the deadly virus in West Africa. The problem was how Bush’s people mis-handled the aftermath, complicated by incompetent, corrupt local governments.”

Obama’s failure to attend the march in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo attacks

Obama didn’t attend a march of 4 million French people and numerous foreign heads of state after gunmen, who claimed ties to Islamic extremists, attacked the offices of the satirical publication.

From Max Boot’s Jan. 12, 2015, piece in Commentary Magazine: “The Paris rally might become, as my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Robert Danin suggested on Twitter, ‘Obama’s diplomatic Katrina moment’ — a moment which crystallizes a growing perception of presidential failure. That is an ironic end to a presidency which came into being in no small measure as a protest against ‘unilateralism.’”

National Security Agency leaks

The Washington Post, June 10, 2013. Jennifer Rubin maintains the revelations made by NSA leaker Edward Snowden would cause the public to lose faith in Obama.  

“In a way, the NSA intelligence gathering is President Obama’s Katrina,” Rubin argued. “While the accusations may be ignorant and unfair, it nevertheless becomes the final blow that drains support from independents and his base and sends his poll numbers plummeting.”


The Baltimore Sun, May 17, 2013. In an article entitled, “Obama’s ‘Katrina moment,’” Todd Eberly says the 2012 attack on the diplomatic outpost that left four Americans dead could cause the public to abandon Obama.

“If the president does not soon regain control of the narrative, he is likely to suffer the same fate as his predecessor — a collapse in public confidence and a vastly diminished second term,” Eberly wrote.

Photo credit: James Nielsen/Getty Images

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