Tuned In

Healthcare.gov Is, Like, the Twelfth “Obama’s Katrina” So Far

There is no force of man or nature more powerful than a news cliché.

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Win McNamee / Getty Images

Barack Obama speaks on the Affordable Care Act in the White House briefing room Nov. 14, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

You don’t have to have read very deeply in the minutiae of the Healthcare.gov fiasco to have picked up on a certain musical meme in the coverage: the Affordable Care Act is “Obama’s Katrina.” The implication is clear: that like the New Orleans hurricane and flood, the health care reform effort is a disaster,  it claimed innocent victims, and it has undermined public confidence in government.

There is a bright side to all of this, however. If Healthcare.gov is Obama’s Katrina, then we could not ask for a more experienced leader to deal with the problem. Because according to the news and punditry of the last five years, President Obama has had at least a dozen “Obama’s Katrina”s so far.

Probably the most widespread usage of  the phrase “Obama’s Katrina” before now came during the BP oil spill in 2010. There at least you had history maybe not repeating but rhyming: a natural an environmental disaster (if not a massive loss of human life), the location in the Gulf near New Orleans, a seemingly paralyzed government response. And, of course, it had partisan utility: Karl Rove, who had some experience with the actual Katrina, christened the spill thus in the Wall Street Journal.

But “Obama’s Katrina” would not limit itself to one geographic region, or to environmental disasters, or to disasters at all. At conservative site Breitbart.com, days before the 2012 election, Hurricane Sandy was “Obama’s Katrina.” After tornadoes devastated the Midwest, commentators (including Katrina’s Michael “Heckuva Job” Brown) likened the disaster to “Obama’s Katrina,” criticizing the President for an overseas trip. Sequestration has been Obama’s Katrina. The New Republic dubbed the 2011 debt ceiling crisis Obama’s Katrina. (But, fair’s fair, also “Boehner’s Katrina.” Everyone gets a Katrina!) Earlier this year, conservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin wrote that, “In a way, the NSA intelligence gathering is Obama’s Katrina.” Sure! In a way, what isn’t?

I could go on and on, but writing in ThinkProgress, Judd Legum recently identified several more “Obama’s Katrina”s in the media: the bank bailout, Benghazi, unemployment, the underwear bomber, the IRS scandal, and the earthquake in Haiti.

Obviously there are partisan motives behind plenty of these, but not exclusively: one of Legum’s examples, for instance, comes from liberal New York magazine columnist Frank Rich. Beyond the desire of one party to score a two-fer–christening a scandal for the opposition while ameliorating one of their own past scandals in the process–there’s the good-old-fashioned reflex of the media to cast This Thing in terms of That Other Thing. God knows it didn’t originate with the Obama Administration; we’ve lived through four decades of “-gates” by now. It’s just easier to have a precooked bit of hyperbole that declares, “This is big news” than to go through the trouble of distinguishing how this news is different from other news.

There was one Katrina. There was one Watergate. Maybe Healthcare.gov will be a failure whose ramifications will reverberate for years; maybe it won’t. But one news cliché or another won’t make it so. The only way we’ll know that for sure is if, four or eight years from now, partisans and pundits are calling the next President’s problems his or her Healthcare.gov.