NEW ORLEANS - In his first visit since taking office, President Barack Obama sought Thursday to reassure frustrated New Orleans residents that his administration is working aggressively to repair the hurricane-damaged city and return people to their jobs and homes.
Speaking at a town hall meeting near the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, Obama recounted what he said was "good progress" during the first nine months of his administration. But he was quickly put on the defensive by one resident who said he was still frustrated by the slow pace of the economic and physical recovery around him.
"I expected as much from the Bush administration," said Gabriel Bordenave, 29. "But why are we still being nickeled and dimed?"
Obama responded that his government is "working as hard as we can as quickly as we can," but he complained about "complications" in working with state and local governments to speed resources to rebuild hospitals, schools and other facilities.
"I wish I could just write a check," he said. "You say, why not? There's this whole thing about the Constitution." He added that in Washington, "everyone will attack you for spending money, unless you are spending it on them."
"The damage from (Hurricane) Katrina was not just caused by a disaster of nature, but by a failure of government - a government that wasn't adequately prepared and didn't adequately respond," he told the audience of more than 1,000 people at the University of New Orleans.
Obama received a warm and raucous welcome from the crowd, which booed loudly when the president introduced Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal and again when he introduced the city's Democratic Mayor Ray Nagin.
Obama also used the opportunity to pledge to pass health care reform this year, to thundering applause.
"Those folks who are trying to stand in the way of progress, let me tell you. I'm just getting started," Obama said.