"God has a special providence for fools, drunks, children and the United States of America."--Otto von Bismarck
When historians review the 2012 US Presidential Campaign at least one conclusion will be shared by men and women across the ideological divide: Superstorm Sandy was a “game-changer.”
In the period of a few catastrophic days, our country was reminded of the role of government, the positive power of bipartisanship, and the necessity of collaboration, cooperation, and community.
Whatever last minute momentum the Republican Party had in its quest for the Presidency, the Senate, and the US House of Representatives, was frozen-in-place by issues larger than politics.
At some point we may all look back upon the Sandy tragedy as a wake-up call for America, and opportunity to reconsider things we tend to push aside – until reality pushes it to center-stage.
It also showcased for the world to see that America is still the place where partisans actively engaged in a knock-down, drag-out race still love our country enough to put down swords and work for common cause when events require them to do so.
Say what you want about President Obama – and Governor Christie – these two men demonstrated the ways things are supposed to be in a civilized, democratic republic. Though both men opened themselves up to criticism for doing it (Christie more so than Obama), what we saw was an example of how the federal system was built to work.
Emergencies are inherently local, until they aren’t – meaning when the event becomes larger than local capacities. States are the next level: governors now understand the ability to manage medium sized crises as a primary function. But there are times – when catastrophe wreaks havoc upon the “normal” structures and systems – times when states cannot absorb a disaster alone.
The US is a federal system still. Our states are highly competent political organizations but the federal government alone – retains the equipment, personnel, and resources essential for response and recovery from major disaster.
And a major disaster – Sandy – came.
When an incumbent President with relatively high job performance ratings is running for reelection it is always helpful when s/he gets to “be” President. Candidates are always subject to a record (whether it be real or invented), but a US President during a crisis is like a general on the field of battle – there is an undeniable sense of purpose that shows through the noise of crisis.
And in those moments, a President either knows what s/he is doing – or they don’t. Compare Katrina and Sandy for a case study in performance. Ironically, Bush was given the benefit of the doubt in 2004 when Al Qaeda released a tape intended to defeat John Kerry (which it did). Al Qaeda wanted a continued fight in surrogate lands (ref: Iraq) – a fight they knew only Bush would continue (and with relish).
In 2004 Americans remembered the initial responses after 9/11 (forgetting the hiding from danger parts) and saw in Bush the leader he could be – at least during crisis.
In 2012 Americans were reminded of the value of a calm, competent chief executive that can make decisions – and live by them. Even detractors admit that Obama can make a hard decision and stand by it.
Barack Obama is a smart politician and a capable strategist (he defeated Hillary after all), but like Woodrow Wilson before him – his real value is as a President, doing Presidential things. It is why his first term was a rocky path: he was learning how to navigate the office – because he wants to do big things.
With reelection, Barack Obama will transform the modern political landscape. He will please some of us, infuriate the rest, but in the end – he will plod along rewriting the rules of governance in an increasingly ungovernable America.
This past week was a test of both President Obama and his would be replacement. Ironically, all Governor Romney had to do – was stay relevant – and not get in the way. Americans understand the role differential in such instances.
And yet, the seeds of his failure were sown over a year ago in an honest, well-argued (if wrong) explanation of why disaster mitigation, response, and recovery functions are best managed at the state level and/or in the private sector.
In his passionate advocacy for a smaller, less active federal government Romney was setting the table for a real decision this election day: do we want an imperfect federal government that can do big things in crisis, or do we want to put our trust into structures and systems we know lack the capabilities we need – but cost less (on paper).
It is a philosophical argument that comes around every few years. This is a good – healthy thing. We are supposed to adjust our focus, from time to time, and elections are the proper way of doing so. At the heart of our nation is a tension between the power of the individual and the power of the state.
Since the origin of our Republic we have sought balance – a balance circumstance-bound in the exigencies of our realities. Sometimes we have expanded the role of government, and sometimes we have curtailed its reach. This essential dialogue is expressed through partisan campaigns and is all too often overwhelmed by the circus of modern politics.
That said, this tension reveals itself. In 2008 it had more to do with the federal government and its role in securing an economy. The US Government was the only actor on the stage that had the sufficient strength to reinforce failing structures; it alone had the power to stay a complete collapse.
In 2012 it has been revealed again – through the massive scale, scope, and size of Superstorm Sandy. 23 states impacted. $30-50 Billion (and counting) in damages. And at least 20 million Americans reeling from the fury of nature.
Historians will likely differ on the relative electoral impact of Sandy when compared to the other factors involved in the 2012 race. Some will say that the seeds for reelection were already sown prior; they may be right.
That said, few will likely dispute the impact upon the margin of victory, because through Sandy, Americans have realized a basic truth: we need a President ready for the unanticipated challenges modernity throws at us – a leader able to reach across the aisles when the time for action is needed.
When the trumpet blared, Barack Obama was able to prove himself the best choice for President when (and how) it mattered most.