NEW ORLEANS — Barack Obama was met mostly with cheers in his brief and tightly scripted trip to this storm-ravaged city -- his first as chief executive. But he and his team were also repeatedly reminded of the daunting trouble awaiting anyone who would dare promise to fix the mess wrought by Hurricane Katrina.
On his way to a Lower 9th Ward charter school, the president's motorcade passed several of the more than 91,000 homes in the metropolitan area that remain in disrepair more than four years after the flood.
In front of one of them, a simple sign had been posted, presumably for the president: "Four years later . . . "
But when he arrived at the school, he was greeted ecstatically. And in the Lower 9th Ward, a pair of women jumped up and down in the wake of the president's limo, hugging each other, screaming, "I saw him!" During a brief lull at a town hall meeting, one woman shrieked, "I love you, Obama!"
Across town, Obama's Education secretary, Arne Duncan -- one of three Cabinet members along for the trip -- met with students and local officials at John McDonogh Senior High. Paul Vallas, the head of the city's Recovery School District, spoke of the hundreds of millions in rebuilding funds he was still hoping to receive from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Other local officials at the school said that New Orleans' radically reimagined schools desperately needed funding for dropout prevention and early-childhood education. A student said there was no zinc available for experiments in her Advanced Placement chemistry class.
The day's main event was the town hall meeting at the University of New Orleans, where the president got a taste of the kind of impassioned criticism that politicians working on the post-Katrina landscape have been known to face. As Obama rattled off the list of dignitaries in the room, the crowd burst into a chorus of boos for Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal. There was also an echo of boos for Mayor C. Ray Nagin, a Democrat.
Obama laughed and offered some comfort to the Republican governor: Some days, he said, "I get that too."
And even from the friendly crowd came a cutting question for the president. Complaining about the pace of federal aid, one student told Obama: "I expected as much from the Bush administration, but why are we still being nickeled and dimed in our recovery?"
This rookie president, of course, has already faced his share of critiques -- over healthcare reform, the federal stimulus package and his prolonged deliberation on Afghanistan policy, among other things. A fourth-grader who posed the final question of the event summed it up: "Why do people hate you?"
Obama put an optimistic sheen on the situation, arguing that his administration was making things better on the Gulf Coast. His White House has promoted cooperation among the levels of government, he said, and has freed up more than $1.5 billion in recovery and rebuilding assistance "tangled up in red tape for years."
"This assistance is allowing us to move forward together with projects that were stalled across the Gulf Coast: projects rebuilding and improving schools, investing in public health and safety, repairing broken roads and bridges and buildings," he said to a swell of applause. "And this effort has been dramatically amplified by the Recovery Act, which has put thousands of Gulf Coast residents back to work."
But he was quick to add what everyone in the room knew to be true.
"We know how much work is left to be done," Obama said. "Whether you're driving through New Orleans, Biloxi or the southern part of Louisiana, it's clear how far we have to go before we can call this recovery a real success."
The short duration of Obama's visit -- it lasted a few hours -- and the fact that it came nine months into his presidency brought criticism from Republicans and even some supporters who said that the region's vast problems called for more attention. The White House and its allies countered by noting that Obama had been to the region five times before his election.
Vallas was among those who argued that the Obama administration, as a whole, passed the important test of responsiveness to the problems plaguing New Orleans.
"The president doesn't have to come here to help us," he said. "We've had a lot of [presidential] visits. The real question should be, 'What did he leave behind?' "
Still, with few policy announcements, Thursday's trip was notable mostly as a showing of the White House flag.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano visited a Coast Guard center that monitors Mississippi River traffic.
While Duncan met with students at McDonogh High, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan was on hand for the groundbreaking of a mixed-income development that will replace the B.W. Cooper Apartments, one of the troubled "Big Four" public housing projects that were torn down after an emotional local and national debate.
State officials pointed out that the replacement would offer 740 new units -- a crucial addition to a city that lost 44,000 rental units in the flood and is struggling to accommodate working-class residents amid skyrocketing rents.
Obama's town hall appearance was carefully scrutinized by the all-black daytime crowd at Charles Place, a corner speak-easy in a still-recovering section of the Uptown neighborhood. A number of patrons were Obama supporters, and most said they were willing to give the president time to make things right.
Janitor Lenny Harris was one of a handful of those who paid less attention, wandering in and out of the bar and socializing. But Harris, 56, said that it was not from a lack of caring.
"I'd rather see what he does -- not hear what he says he's going to do," he said.