Haiti: what’s at stake
Maybe you thought Obama was the "health care President" or perhaps the "Afghanistan President", but to my eyes right now he looks like the "Haiti President." I predict we'll have over a million Haitians living in refugee camps for the foreseeable future. (It depends how many of the homeless of those can be absorbed by northern Haiti.) If people don't make it into camps they will be sleeping on the street with little or no means of food or water or employment.
It's a mistake to think there's any brick-by-brick way out of that predicament. It's not like the earthquake in Armenia or for that matter eighteenth century Lisbon. Haiti has no functioning government, no working legal system, and very little remaining infrastructure. There's no formal means to make decisions about reconstruction and no capital to clear away the mess. As I've written, the country as we know simply doesn't exist any more (view the second video or try these photos). Port-Au-Prince is destroyed and the city was the heart of the country, economically, politically, and otherwise. Léogâne, Jacmel, and other significant locales are mostly destroyed as well and they're not receiving much assistance.
Obama will (and should) do something about this situation. First, I believe he sincerely wants to help but also he cannot ignore his African-American constituency, especially after former President Clinton devoted so much attention to Haiti and especially if health care reform doesn't go through as planned. Yet he will have a festering situation on his hands for the rest of his term. If "looting" (a bad word in this context) increases or continues, how quickly will the American people lose sympathy with the Haitians? How can the "reconstruction" possibly go well? Ugly gang rule isn't even the worst case scenario.
Obama now stands a higher chance of being a one-term President. Foreign aid programs are especially unpopular, especially relative to their small fiscal cost. Have you noticed how Rush Limbaugh and others are already making their rhetoric uglier than usual? It will be a test of the American populace; at what point will people start whispering that he is "favoring the other blacks"?
Just as it's not easy to pull out of Iraq or Afghanistan, it won't be easy to pull out of Haiti.
Maybe you thought health care was a hard problem. Maybe you thought that cap and trade would make health care look easy. This may be the hardest problem yet and it wasn't on anybody's planning ledger. Obama won't have many allies in this fight either. A lot of Democratic interest groups might, silently, wish he would forget about the whole thing.
Mass starvation wouldn't look good on the evening news either. What does it mean to preside over the collapse of a country of more than nine million people? It's Obama who's about to find out, not the increasingly irrelevant Rene Preval. Everyone in Haiti is looking to President Obama.