Sandy not doing for Obama what Katrina did for Bush

Tue, Nov 6, 2012, 00:00

ECONOMICS:As Sandy barrelled towards New Jersey, there were hopeful mutters on the right to the effect that it might become President Barack Obama’s Katrina, with voters blaming him for the damage, and that this might matter today. Sorry, guys – polls show overwhelming approval for Obama’s handling of the storm and a significant rise in his overall favourability ratings.

He deserves the bump. The response to Sandy, like the success of the motor industry bailout, is a demonstration that Obama’s philosophy of government – which holds that the government can and should provide crucial aid in times of crisis – works. Conversely, the contrast between Sandy and Katrina demonstrates that leaders who hold government in contempt cannot provide that aid when it is needed.

So, about that response. Much of the greater New York area (including my house) is still without power, gas is scarce and some outlying areas are feeling neglected. Right-wing news media are portraying these continuing difficulties as a disaster comparable to, nay greater than, the aftermath of Katrina. But there’s really no comparison.

I could do a point-by-point – and it’s definitely worth it, if you’re curious, to revisit the 2005 Katrina timeline to get a sense of just how bad the response really was. But for me the difference is summed up in two images. One is the nightmare at the New Orleans convention centre, where thousands were stranded for days amid inconceivable squalor, an outrage that all of America watched live on TV, but to which top officials seemed oblivious. The other is the scene in flooded Hoboken, with the National Guard moving in the day after the storm struck to deliver food and water and rescue stranded residents.

The point is that after Katrina, the government seemed to have no idea what it was doing; this time it did – and that’s no accident. The federal government’s ability to respond effectively to disaster always collapses when anti-government Republicans hold the White House and always recovers when Democrats take it back.

Under President George HW Bush, the Federal Emergency Management Agency became a dumping ground for unqualified political hacks. Faced with a major test in the form of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the agency failed completely. Then Bill Clinton came in, put Fema under professional management and saw the agency’s reputation restored.

Given this experience, you might have expected George W Bush to preserve Clinton’s gains. But no. He appointed his campaign manager, Joe Allbaugh, to head the agency. Allbaugh immediately signalled his intention both to devolve disaster relief to the state and local level and to downgrade the whole effort. “Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level,” he said.

After Allbaugh left for the private sector, he was replaced with Michael “heckuva job” Brown, and the rest is history. Like Clinton, Obama restored Fema’s professionalism, effectiveness and reputation. But would Mitt Romney destroy the agency again? Yes, he would.

As everyone now knows, during the primary, Romney used language almost identical to Allbaugh’s, declaring that disaster relief should be turned back to the states and to the private sector.

Look, Republicans love to quote Ronald Reagan’s old joke that the most dangerous words you can hear are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Of course they’ll do their best, whenever they’re in power, to destroy an agency whose job is to say exactly that. And yes, it’s hypocritical that the right-wing news media are now attacking Obama for, they say, not helping enough people.

Back to the politics. Some Republicans have already started using Sandy as an excuse for a possible Romney defeat. It’s a weak argument. State-level polls have been signalling a clear and perhaps widening Obama advantage for weeks. To the extent that the storm helps Obama, it’s well deserved.

If Romney had been president these past four years, the federal response to disasters of all kinds would have been far weaker than it was. There would have been no motor bailout, because Romney opposed the federal financing that was crucial to the rescue, and Fema would have been mired in Bush-era incompetence.

So this storm probably won’t swing the election – but if it does, it will do so for very good reasons.

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