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“Heckuva Job, Barry”: Disasters Offer A Visible Opportunity For A President To Either Succeed Or Fail

Although some may find it crass to speculate on the political impact of The Storm, I’m going to go ahead and do it, for two reasons. First, I’ve earned the right, and second, because complaints that things are “politicized” are almost always misconceived. Politics is important. It concerns choices that affect all our lives. And campaigns ought to be connected to the actual business of governing, so when an event occurs that implicates our government, it should be talked about. Problems sometimes arise not from the fact that something is politicized, but the way it’s politicized. For instance, when in the 2002 election, Republicans charged that Democrats were on the side of al Qaeda because those Democrats favored a different bill establishing the Department of Homeland Security than the bill Republicans favored, it was despicable not because September 11 had been “politicized,” but because of the manner in which it was politicized.

Anyhow, back to the storm. This morning, an editor at the Prospect suggested to me that if Romney loses, Republicans will say bitterly for some time to come that had it not been for the storm, his momentum would have carried him to victory. I don’t doubt they will say that (although I think that will be what the sober Republicans will say; the others will find voting conspiracies to convince them that he didn’t legitimately win). But the question is, even if they were right, what’s wrong with that?

You can look at this just as a campaign issue—perhaps the fact that Romney is losing a couple of days in which the campaign, and his persuasive arguments, would have been on the front pages instead of storm cleanup, and that might make some tiny difference in the outcome of the race. But there’s a substantive issue here too. Natural disasters offer a visible opportunity for a president to either succeed or fail, and it’s appropriate to judge Barack Obama on how this one is handled. That’s true on the level of his performance at the moment, and when it comes to the personnel and systems he put in place in preparation for this kind of event.

One also can’t help thinking back to what happened seven years ago when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and there’s nothing wrong with that either. When George W. Bush took office, he gave the FEMA directorship to his campaign manager, Joe Allbaugh, who hadn’t had that kind of experience before. Allbaugh was succeeded by “Heckuva Job” Michael Brown, who came from the nationally vital position of judging commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association. Point is, I doubt President Bush much cared who was in charge of FEMA, and when Americans needed it, it wasn’t up to the job. When Barack Obama took office, he appointed Craig Fugate, whose last job was running Florida’s emergency management agency. Obama obviously didn’t want to repeat Bush’s mistake, and by all accounts FEMA is working far better than it did during the Bush years.

Republicans may be frustrated by the fact that just before the election, we get an event that reminds people that there are some things we need government for. And it’s more bad luck for them that this particular event will also remind people of what happened seven years ago when they were in charge. But there’s nothing unfair about it. If Mitt Romney has a case to make as to why his small-government philosophy would produce better disaster response than what we’re seeing now, let him go ahead and make it.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, November 11, 2012

November 2, 2012 - Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , ,

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