As we braced ourselves for the arrival of Hurricane Sandy my thoughts drifted back to Katrina and the devastation that storm brought to the Gulf Coast, and its deathly onslaught on the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. Mostly I thought about the tepid federal response and watching helplessly on television as residents of the Crescent City fought for their lives against rising flood waters, and hoping against all hope for help that did not arrive on time for many of them. I was on the radio in New York City doing the news on the now defunct KISS-FM talking to folks down in New Orleans just hours before the levees broke, unleashing a torrent of water upon residents. The sound of despair was evident in those I talked to as they felt a sense of abandonment by their federal government and total confusion on the part of local leaders.
The federal response and coordination of aid after Katrina was one of President George W. Bush’s most dramatic failures. First downplaying the severity of the storm, and congratulating FEMA’s then inept leadership for a “heckuva job” when residents of New Orleans were literally drowning and dying, George W. Bush embarrassed the United States on the international stage. To add insult to injury, the mother of the President and former First Lady, Barbara Bush, insinuated that evacuated residents were actually doing better off in the storm’s aftermath than they were in the comfort of their homes. Her remarks struck most as the ignorance of privilege and the words of a woman detached from the reality of human suffering. Throughout the world people were questioning how the most powerful nation on the planet could so callously ignore the suffering of its own. For African-Americans in particular, the Bush administration’s foot-dragging and finger pointing was just the latest in a series of insults and further proof of the Republican Party’s utter disregard for Blacks.
Now, with Hurricane Sandy in the record books as one of the most, if not the most, devastating tropical storm systems to hit the northeast we have a vivid example of the “Tale of Two Storms.” Unlike his predecessor, President Obama has shown real leadership in the aftermath of Sandy and has been proactive in engaging the federal government on behalf of its citizens. The President has made it clear his expectation that all federal agencies will take any and all steps necessary to aid state governments and that he will not tolerate bureaucracy or “red tape” delaying federal aid. President Obama also took swift action in declaring affected states federal disaster areas and made certain governors and mayors have direct access to him in the event that they are not receiving proper assistance from Washington. Even a partisan like Republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey has publicly praised the President’s leadership and welcomed his assistance and his decision to tour the state’s storm damaged areas. It is a dramatic departure from the confusion we witnessed under President Bush when Gulf Coast states were left begging for assistance from the federal government.
This brings us to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. In a debate during the GOP primaries Romney expressed great disdain for federal disaster intervention and suggested states were better equipped to handle these emergencies. Romney went so far as to suggest that the private sector could do a better job in disaster relief and that federal expenditures in this area should be reduced in the wake of the federal deficit. As Hurricane Sandy released its fury I am certain that there were few residents in the impacted states that agreed with Mr. Romney’s assessment. That includes Republican governors like Chris Christie who are smart enough to know that the limited resources of state government are not adequate to support residents when natural disasters strike. And the private sector is facing its own challenges recovering from the storm, let alone in a position to help others. There seems to be quiet coming from the “less government” corner these days.
What is striking about the President’s decisiveness and Mitt Romney’s “the state can do it better” mantra is the clear difference in how each man regards and values American citizenship. The President sees the federal government as an enabler of opportunity and a source of protection when citizens need it most. He doesn’t devalue the states but he sees the federal government as ultimately responsible for the welfare of the people. Not Mitt Romney. The Republican candidate confuses “residency” with citizenship, and assumes that states are capable of meeting needs defined by your status as a citizen and not simply a resident of a state. It’s not that residents of New Jersey, New York and neighboring states need help getting back on their feet after Hurricane Sandy; the bigger issue is that American citizens are in need and their national government has a responsibility to help. For someone who professes to have an insight into the economy, Romney misses the point that the damage in the states hit by Sandy will be felt in many other places; making a state focused response inadequate for a national crisis.
In the closing days of the 2012 presidential election Hurricane Sandy gives us the opportunity to see real leadership in action and lays out a clear demarcation between the two candidates. For all that President George W. Bush was not in the days and weeks following Hurricane Katrina, and all that Mitt Romney is today, President Barack Obama has proven himself that much more and demonstrated again why he is best suited to lead this nation.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.