In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Chris Christie, the Governor of New Jersey, and Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York City, are taking different approaches to President Obama’s role in their post-storm efforts. Christie encouraged Obama to visit his state and inspect the carnage caused by the hurricane, while Bloomberg asked the president to steer clear of his city.
What should a president do after a natural disaster? Is the mere presence of the president a burden for state and local officials as they work diligently to bring order to their municipalities? And, what about the 800 pound gorilla in the room? Are visits and invitations politically motivated, or for the benefit of citizens in distress?
Most people would probably say that heartfelt concern by the president for those trying to put their lives back together is very important and effective. I certainly agree. Inspecting devastation is absolutely a prerogative of the president, and so, he can travel to any place he wants to. The most important issue is for the president to ensure that the federal government through FEMA and all other pertinent organizations is doing everything possible to assist the first responders.
There exists a great divide between what Obama and Romney believe is the appropriate role of the federal government in disaster relief. Obama is in favor of a major help on the part of the government, while Romney prefers that disaster relief be orchestrated at the local level. This is an issue that needs to be debated and sorted out over time.
In a highly-charged political environment, it is interesting to speculate what the players’ real motivations are. Obama wants to appear presidential. Does his presence do anything tangible for families whose homes are now underwater? Not really. But, if the families see the president in their state, or even better, in their neighborhood, they may feel better, for a moment, anyway.
What these families really need is support and assistance. They need a check to arrive as soon as possible without any red tape delays. From my perspective, the president could be more useful if he spent his time cutting through bureaucracy for these people.
So, what are the motivations? Well, for Obama, it is to make points with the electorate just days before the election. We can be naïve and think it is his job to schlep up to New Jersey in Air Force One or in Marine One to inspect and comfort Christie, but this is not going to help those in need.
For Christie, the situation is more complicated. For sure, the governor wanted to get presidential assurances that he will expedite federal support to his state; Christie is that kind of guy. (Note: a phone call between the men would have sufficed.) But, hobnobbing with the president, after all the unkind words Christie had for Obama, builds the former’s reputation. Being distracted by a presidential visit was worth it for Christie given his political ambition.
My criticism of the governor was that he was a little too effusive in his praise of Obama. I admit, it was an important symbolic gesture of anti-partisanship, but please, Obama has done very little to help New Jersey yet. After a few phone calls and a quick trip to his state, Christie showered Obama with praise, even though he is running against Romney, who Christie has campaigned vigorously for.
Mayor Bloomberg, on the other hand, is more of a pragmatist, and so, he asked the president to steer clear of the city and not create any new distractions. Bloomberg’s career is in its twilight moments, and so, he could care less about doing political favors. He only asks that the president do his job and send money and assistance to New York as quickly as possible.
Forget the pomp and circumstance of an actual visit. Do New Yorkers, who are spending two to six hours a day commuting to work, need to have Obama’s entourage screwing up traffic even further? No. Does New York want to assign police officers to Obama duty at this time? No. Does the mayor need to ferry Obama around while he is busy orchestrating a massive cleanup? No.
It is the political season. Therefore, I am having a hard time separating political motivations from good will and comity.