In his 2006 State of the Union address to the joint chambers of Congress, President George W. Bush — who had been widely and rightly criticized for his botched response to Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods — addressed the topic head-on. "A hopeful society comes to the aid of fellow citizens in times of suffering and emergency and stays at it until they're back on their feet," Bush said, emphasizing the federal government's then-$85 million commitment to rebuilding and repairing southeast Louisiana. But a year later, when Bush didn't even mention Katrina in his 2007 State of the Union speech (16 months after the devastation) then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco spoke out: "I certainly was surprised and very disappointed that the president didn't have a single thing to say about the Gulf Coast, about Louisiana," she said. "I guess the pains of the hurricane are yesterday's news in Washington, but for us it's still very real and something we fight every day."
Judging from President Barack Obama's State of the Union address on Jan. 25, the pains of the Gulf oil disaster likewise are yesterday's news in Washington. In a June 2010 address to the nation, Obama called the BP oil gusher "the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced." He promised to make "a commitment to the Gulf Coast that goes beyond responding to the crisis of the moment." Seven months later, in his first State of the Union address after the disaster, Obama didn't bother to say a word about the No. 1 news story in America in 2010. (In fairness, neither did Congressman Paul Ryan in the official GOP response.)
Certainly no one on the Gulf Coast was expecting to have BP raked over the coals again. Nor did we expect to hear anything about the frustrations with Kenneth Feinberg's claims process. Still, it's easy to imagine the righteous fury of Democrats had something of this scale happened on the Republicans' watch, only to have it ignored by the president in his State of the Union speech. Some have defended Obama by correctly noting that a one-hour speech could not include everything, but still — a months-long oil hemorrhage in federal waters, an ecological disaster that affected four states and tens of thousands of families, 11 rig workers killed in the initial blowout ... not even mentioned once? For those weary of Bush's insouciance during and after Katrina, it felt like déjà vu all over again.
The State of the Union is a symbolic moment, designed equally to inspire and to let the American people know their president shares their concerns. Certainly Obama's speech was one of his best (and, given his writing and oratorical skills, that's saying something), but Louisiana Democrats' responses to the speech were muted. Mayor Mitch Landrieu concentrated on Obama's inspiring words about education and innovation, while Sen. Mary Landrieu called the Gulf Coast omission "a big disappointment," adding, "Even one sentence would have helped." But it was GOP freshman Jeff Landry who really came out swinging: "The president missed a tremendous opportunity to address the ongoing situation in the Gulf of Mexico. I would have preferred empty words to absolute neglect." Louisiana political blogger Mike Bayham noted Obama's speech had room for the Chilean miners but not Gulf Coast fishermen.
Obama should know that this disaster is ongoing. The Feinberg hearings are packed with frustrated Gulf Coast residents (one man fell to his knees begging Feinberg for help). On the day of the speech, WWL-TV ran a story about the lack of breeding activity in some of Louisiana's most productive oyster habitats, which has scientists "baffled." Obama's Oil Spill Commission was due to testify in the Senate the next day. Simply put, the oil disaster is still news — today and for many days to come.
Obama has been criticized in the past for his seemingly languid attitude toward this catastrophe. Last year, Democratic strategist James Carville (who had lambasted the White House response) told Gambit, "We're still going to be dealing with this in 2012. [Obama] might point to this [handling of the crisis] as one of his great accomplishments. I hope he can." We agree — and his State of the Union speech would have been a fine place to start.