Hurricane Sandy: a political storm

Pundits’ exploitation of Sandy to big up Barack Obama shows how desperate they have become.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics USA

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With Hurricane Sandy landing on the Eastern seaboard of the US just one week before the presidential elections, some people took time away from considering the devastation to wonder about the implications for American politics.

Both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were concerned to not appear overtly political in their response. Obama stopped campaigning and stayed in Washington to lead the relief efforts. Romney cancelled events ‘out of sensitivity’ for those affected by Sandy.

But the candidates’ reticence to play politics at a time of national crisis was not shared by certain pundits. The New York Times, in particular, argued that there were political lessons to be learned from Sandy. In its lead editorial the morning after the hurricane hit, entitled ‘A big storm requires big government’, it said:

‘Disaster coordination is one of the most vital functions of “big government”, which is why Mitt Romney wants to eliminate it. At a Republican primary debate last year, Mr Romney was asked whether emergency management was a function that should be returned to the states. He not only agreed, he went further [and suggested it could be turned over to the private sector]… It’s an absurd notion, but it’s fully in line with decades of Republican resistance to federal emergency planning.’

Romney and the Republicans are open to criticism on this point. Congressional Republicans have pushed for a reduction in grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which coordinates the national response to disasters. If the budget proposed by Paul Ryan, Romney’s vice-president running mate, is an indication of Romney’s future plans, all non-defence spending – including FEMA – would be subject to a 22 per cent cut. Beyond Sandy, the Republicans are still associated with President George W Bush’s poor response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.

But, in its eagerness to score points, the Times missed the mark. Romney never said that he wants to ‘eliminate’ FEMA. As his campaign stressed, Romney sees a continued role for FEMA, but he believes states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to natural disasters. And, as it happens, under the current set-up, the states do take the primary role in addressing hurricanes, while the federal government plays a role of coordinating and providing additional finance.

The immediate latching on to Hurricane Sandy by the Times and others smacks of desperation. The presidential race is close, and Romney is generally viewed as the one with momentum. Using Hurricane Sandy in this way is a Hail Mary attempt to help a campaign that’s throwing everything it can find at Romney (Big Bird, binders, ‘Romnesia’), hoping something will knock him down. Last week, Obama unveiled a glossy brochure, The New Economic Patriotism, which was clearly intended to answer the charge that he lacks an agenda for a second term. But, if you are really serious about your vision, do you wait until two weeks before the election to wheel it out? As in: by the way, I do have an agenda for you if you’re into that sort of thing.

Will the hurricane impact this neck-and-neck election? It could. As long as the government response seems reasonably effective, Obama is likely to benefit. He already received a boost when Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey and a prominent Romney ally, said the president has been ‘wonderful’ and ‘deserves great credit’. There is also a palpable desire for order and security at time of disaster, and this theme happens to be one that underlies Obama’s general message. His emphasis on security by means of an expanding government role is contrasted with Romney’s rhetoric about freedom, which Democrats portray as reckless and uncaring.

The real issue is that an event like a hurricane shouldn’t really impact the outcome of a presidential election much. But because the contest has been devoid of political substance and many voters have no strong attachments to either candidate – and at this late stage many remain unconvinced and undecided – arbitrary events, including acts of nature, can have an outsized effect. With the arrival of Sandy, an unpredictable and volatile election became more so.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.

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Topics USA


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