(Listen to the interview )
Obama, a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, said the country needs a president who will wake up every morning and deliberate how to push recovery in New Orleans forward. He spoke late Thursday night to a warm crowd at the Superdome for the Essence Music Festival.
"The role of the next president is to make sure that the rebuilding of New Orleans is at the top of the national priority list," Obama said Thursday afternoon before his appearance at the festival. "Part of the reason I think folks in Louisiana feel discouraged is that we have not heard this White House or this president even mention it. He didn't mention it in the State of the Union address, and he hasn't mentioned it since. When our president is not focused on the issue, it does not end up on the front page of the papers."
That does not mean ordinary voters are heedless of the problems that continue to haunt New Orleans, he said.
"Everywhere I go around the country as I travel, the American people haven't forgotten about New Orleans. The American people are still frustrated and angered by the lack of progress," Obama said. "I think that there's a reservoir of good will that remains to be tapped, but it's going to require some leadership."
Not only did Hurricane Katrina generate goodwill, he said, but it also provoked a collective sense of shame in the images of poverty and helplessness splayed across the news when storm victims were stranded in rancid water with no food or supplies.
That shame was reminiscent of what Americans felt 40 years ago when law enforcement officers beat and gassed civil rights marchers across the South, he said at the Superdome on Thursday night.
"The moment in which suddenly all of America looked and realized what we lost in this country was almost two years ago, right here in New Orleans, when people recognized we were no longer the America we hoped we would be, that we had lost any sense of fellow-feeling, any sense of mutual regard for each other," Obama said. "It was here in New Orleans that we realized we can't have a government that decides cronyism is more important than confidence, or rhetoric is more important than results. We were reminded of something America should not have to be reminded of: that the legacy of race and poverty in this country continues to shape our lives each and every day. That is what we understood here in New Orleans."
He exhorted the crowd to push for change, not only in the area of storm recovery, but in energy policy and the war in Iraq.
"It is not that often, maybe once in a generation, when we have an opportunity to put our shoulder against the wheel and move history in a better direction," he said. "If all of you seize that moment with me, if you are ready not just to rebuild New Orleans, but rebuild all the New Orleanses all across America, in the south side of Chicago, in New York City, in Houston, then I am convinced we will not just win an election, but we are going to transform a country."
Before his appearance at the Superdome, Obama said the Iraq war has drained federal resources away from strong levees and other public works projects that are necessary to keep the country safe. He said local levees "were a disaster waiting to happen" when Hurricane Katrina roared toward New Orleans.
So was the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which he said was caught flatfooted by the storm. Obama said the next president should reform the agency from top to bottom, "starting by having somebody in charge who actually knows how to do emergency work."
Amber Wilkerson, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said the Republican Party considers hurricane recovery "an important domestic priority" and that the federal government has provided more than $110 billion in aid under President Bush's watch. She accused Obama of using the storm "for his own political gain."
The Illinois senator reflected Thursday on the social and civic failings that came to light with the storm and have complicated the task of rebuilding.
"There was a disaster in New Orleans before the hurricane hit: problems of poverty, substandard schools, a health care system that was creaky, joblessness, crime," Obama said. "Those are chronic issues that we should not have to wait for a hurricane or a natural disaster to start addressing."
Now that crime has returned to the city in force, Obama said, government should focus on rebuilding the police force and the district attorney's office while tackling the causes of the violence.
"Like every city in America, New Orleans will continue to experience violent crime if we are not investing in approaches like early childhood education, improving the public schools, providing job opportunities to young men, in particular, and dealing with the ex-offender problem," Obama said. "We need more police and better policing, but police can only do so much if a community is in chaos."
Obama also acknowledged that staggering insurance premiums are crippling recovery efforts along the Gulf Coast. If elected, he said, he would explore the possibility of a federal reinsurance program similar to the terrorism insurance discussed for skyscrapers in cities including New York or Chicago.
"We need to make sure we are doing the kind of planning that's necessary so that we're not building in areas that present obvious hazards in the event of significant storm activity," Obama said.