The pictures from New Orleans after Katrina were iconic. Stories breathlessly filed from the Superdome warned of rampant crimes, inadequate access to basic sanitation, even babies getting raped (which was later proven to be a rumor). CNN’s Anderson Cooper berated Senator Mary Landrieu on air about the government’s response to the storm. Spike Lee made an entire documentary about the impact the hurricane had on the city and its residents. Famously, during a telethon for Katrina’s victims, rapper Kanye West told viewers, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
The week before the election, Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast, bringing unprecedented destruction to the seaside communities in the tri-state area. Parts of New York City went dark, as sections of the city were completely submerged in flood waters for the first time in modern history. Seaside towns across the Jersey Shore lost their famous boardwalks in an instant, and in Seaside Heights, parts of a roller coaster ended up sucked into the ocean.
For a few crucial days, the prevailing image of Hurricane Sandy in the minds of Americans was that of President Obama being embraced by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. The gratitude expressed by the Republican for federal storm relief seemed to not only symbolize a new wave of bipartisanship, but also burnished the president’s image as a competent commander-in-chief. Nearly a week later, that airbrushed picture of the storm has now been replaced by a less pleasant tableau: residents of New York and New Jersey waiting in the cold for help that hasn’t come, with others standing on long lines for scarce gas. As former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani pointed out yesterday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency may have gotten some great press out of Sandy, but the brutal reality of the storm’s aftermath shows serious flaws in planning for the disaster. The shortages of drinkable water, working generators and gas has made life miserable for too many people.
There’s little doubt the first round of press coverage gave President Obama a tremendous lift last week just at the time when he needed it most. Almost all the national polls showed he gained a few points, knocking Mitt Romney out of the lead he had held since the first presidential debate. The question today as Americans vote is whether the lingering good feelings from that Christie embrace will have worn off by the time many voters step into the booth. The Sandy bounce turned out to be a genuine force in the election and probably the most potent “October surprise” in presidential politics since the last-minute revelation of George W. Bush’s drunk driving arrest as a young man on the eve of the 2000 election. But there may have been just enough time in between Christie’s embrace of Obama and Election Day for some of the sheen to fade from the picture.
As I wrote earlier today, there is little doubt that part of the reason why President Obama got a bounce of some sort from Hurricane Sandy is the perception that his administration did a much better job dealing with the emergency than President Bush did during Hurricane Katrina. This was largely the result of a complacent media that was content to portray the president as the hero of the occasion after his fly through New Jersey and the seal of approval he got from Governor Chris Christie. But Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, someone who knows a thing or two about what happens in a crisis, isn’t buying it.
Giuliani is frustrated not so much by the political spin of this story as by the spectacle of the citizens of his beloved New York City being left in need while the rest of the country “moves on” from the hurricane. As far as Giuliani is concerned, the actions of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) don’t deserve the laurels they have received from the media and for which the president is given credit. As Politico reports:
“The response since the time the president got all this praise and credit and press ops has been abysmal,” Giuliani said on Fox News Channel’s “America’s Newsroom.” “FEMA is as much a failure now as at the time of Katrina.”
Giuliani, a 2008 presidential candidate, said that he did not “understand” why New York was facing water, generators and gas shortages.
“It’s quite obvious they didn’t pre-plan for water, they didn’t pre-plan for the generators, they didn’t pre-plan for the gasoline,” he said.
He bashed Obama for losing “focus” on the subject.
“The president getting all this credit so early, maybe the first day or two he was paying attention, but the minute he got his credit, the minute he got his pat on his back, we had the same situation as we had in Benghazi,” Giuliani said. “He loses focus. He goes back to being campaigner-in-chief rather than commander-in-chief.”
The left has been trying to whip up controversy over a comment Mitt Romney made at a GOP primary debate last year, when he answered a question about whether he’d abolish FEMA by saying he’d like to privatize a whole lot of government programs. Did Romney specifically say he’d privatize FEMA? No, but his answer did suggest it. And because there aren’t anyother political controversies for the media to cover this week, it’s blown up into a major news story.
Here’s Romney’s actual comment from the GOP debate:
Yesterday I wrote that the inevitable analogies that will be drawn by the liberal media between Hurricanes Isaac and Katrina are a gift to the Democrats. Just how much the public will make of these specious comparisons has yet to be determined, but one must give those members of President Obama’s cheerleading squad who write the editorials at the New York Times credit for trying. The paper’s lead editorial today was exactly along the lines that I predicted. It pompously claimed the storm “is a powerful reminder both of Republican incompetence in handling Hurricane Katrina seven years ago” and then piled on to the mythology behind that clause by also asserting that the storm also spotlights “the party’s no-less-disastrous plans to further cut emergency-related spending.”
Suffice it to say that seven years later attempts to blame the Katrina disaster solely on President Bush and his party is absurd, since we now know that most of the problems stemmed from the incompetence, if not the moral turpitude, displayed by local and state authorities. The argument that GOP demands that other savings offset more FEMA expenditures is somehow an invitation to catastrophe is just as dishonest. But as much as liberals are chortling at the Republicans’ bad luck with the weather, they need to be careful not to overplay their hand. While the GOP needs to be aware that a potential storm disaster is more important than their gathering, President Obama must be mindful that any actions of his own this week that can be interpreted as trying to make political hay out of a tragedy will backfire.