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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Romney’s Waffling on FEMA Won’t Win Many Votes

This item by J.P. Green was originally published on October 30, 2012.
In his Washington Post article, “Hurricane Sandy highlights how Obama and Romney respond to disasters,” Ed O’Keefe describes the President’s course of action addressing frankenstorm Sandy:

…Obama has signed at least nine federal emergency disaster declarations in the past 24 hours at the request of state governors, directing FEMA to deploy more resources in anticipation of significant recovery efforts. He canceled campaign stops for Monday and Tuesday to return to the White House to oversee the federal government’s evolving storm response.
…Obama campaigned four years ago on a promise to revamp the federal government’s disaster-response functions and has embraced changes long sought by state governors and professional emergency managers. Since becoming president, he has led the federal response to multiple natural disasters, including tornadoes, flooding and major hurricanes, learning from government stumbles during the presidency of George W. Bush — most notably in the case of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Obama’s posture has been to order federal agencies to aggressively prepare for and respond to major storms and other disasters.

It’s a portrait of a president leaving no task unmet. O’Keefe sees “a moment of sharp contrast between President Obama and Mitt Romney and how their different ideas of governing apply to the federal response to large-scale disasters.” O’Keefe adds that “Obama has been aggressive about bolstering the federal government’s capability to respond to disasters, while his Republican challenger believes that states should be the primary responders in such situations and has suggested that disaster response could be privatized.” Further,

As governor of Massachusetts, Romney requested federal disaster assistance for storm cleanup, and he has toured storm-ravaged communities as a presidential candidate, but he has agreed with some who suggest that the Federal Emergency Management Agency could be dissolved as part of budget cuts.
When moderator John King suggested during a June 2011 CNN debate that federal disaster response could be curtailed to save federal dollars, Romney said: “Absolutely. Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.”

At the time, Romney didn’t have much to say about, ahem, how states should work together when a natural disaster overlaps state borders, as they most always do. But in the Romney campaign’s partial walkback statement, we get this:

“Governor Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions,” said campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg. “As the first responders, states are in the best position to aid affected individuals and communities and to direct resources and assistance to where they are needed most. This includes help from the federal government and FEMA.”

Which is pretty much how the system works, as O’Keefe points out. He adds that the Romney campaign is also collecting supplies for the storm’s victims, which FEMA says is not such a good idea in the earliest part of the relief effort, because cash and blood donations are more urgently needed and donated supplies can cause logistical bottlenecks too early on.
After President Bush botched the Hurricane Katrina relief effort the agency has undergone major restructuring and reorganization under the leadership of President Obama and FEMA administrator Carl Fugate, as O’Keefe explains:

Fugate and Obama have earned praise for restoring the agency’s reputation in the years since Katrina. Despite working for then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as head of the state’s emergency agency, Fugate said he rebuffed overtures from George W. Bush to lead FEMA after Katrina, saying that the GOP administration did not want to rebuild the agency in the fashion since embraced by Obama.

O’Keefe adds that “Fugate has batted away questions before about possible privatization of his agency: “I’m too busy working on other stuff. Ask that to somebody who would give you the time and day to answer that,” he said in a 2011 interview. O’Keefe notes that Obama’s FEMA reforms have “earned plaudits from then-Gov. Haley Barbour (R) of Mississippi and Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) of Louisiana — usually tough Obama critics — and professional emergency managers who had sought the changes for years.” O’Keefe concludes with a quote recalling Bush’s ‘Heckuvajob Brownie” mismanagement of Hurricane Katrina relief:

Obama’s changes at FEMA “have been night and day” compared with those under previous administrations, according to one veteran emergency manager who was not authorized to speak publicly for fear of jeopardizing federal disaster grant requests. “I don’t know who will be the next president, but they can’t put a political hack in the job of leading FEMA ever again.”

Some may protest that it’s unseemly to call attention to the differing approaches of the candidates in a time of national emergency, when Americans should be pulling together. But lives are at stake and it’s important that voters pay attention to the management philosophies and track records of the two candidates in addressing major disasters. This is a matter of national security as much as any foreign policy issue.
What voters are left with is an image of Romney posturing his ideologically-extravagant privatization schema and federal government-bashing, and a more grounded and experienced President Obama taking care of business. My hunch is that the clear distinction will not be lost on observant swing voters.

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