The power is out in New Orleans, and this might be a make-or-break moment for President Biden.
Biden is no Jimmy Carter, but the arrival of Hurricane Ida — on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, no less — can't help but raise uneasy feelings that he'll end up more like George W. Bush. Katrina's horrors, and Bush's mishandling of that crisis, dragged down his popularity and helped lead to the Democratic takeover of Congress the next year. His presidency never really recovered.
If that chain of events isn't on Biden's mind, it's certainly in the thoughts of the team around him.
Biden does have several factors in his favor. For one, it appears that the rebuilt levee system protecting New Orleans has held. "The one good news here, the good news this morning anyway, all of our levee systems performed extremely well," Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said Monday morning. That means casualties from the storm are unlikely to approach anything like Katrina levels. What's more, Biden has taken domestic governance a bit more seriously than Bush ever did. Bush's FEMA director was, famously, an executive with the International Arabian Horse Association before joining the agency. FEMA's current director, Deanne Criswell, spent five years with the agency during the Obama administration and has an extensive background in emergency management. It matters.
On the other hand, federal and state officials in Louisiana have their work cut out for them: Restoring power in New Orleans could take as long as three weeks for some customers. And the hurricane struck during the latest surge in COVID — even before the storm, the region's hospitals were swamped with patients, and Louisiana's public health resources were already stretched to their limits. That won't make the job of recovering from Ida any easier.
In the end, Bush was undone not just by Katrina, but by the fact that the Iraq War had turned into a quagmire by the time the hurricane hit. The public simply lost confidence in his ability to govern. Once a narrative of failure starts to take hold, it isn't easy for a president to reverse course. Biden, whose approval ratings have fallen amidst the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, faces a similar political danger at the moment. An effective recovery from Ida is important for its own sake; it might also determine the future of this presidency.