August 28, 2011

The politics of a hurricane

Be Warned - I'm going to cut President Obama a little slack here.  But only a little.

It's tough being a leader in a natural disaster situation.  In 1999 the mayor of Toronto called in army to aid in a coming snow and ice storm of mammoth proportions.  Except the storm never materialized.  I don't recall specifically but I think there was less than an inch of snow.  The mayor was derided as an idiot from all quarters for a long time after that.  But if the mayor had done nothing and then the storm materialized, it would have been the same as it was for President Bush after Katrina (specific relevant issues of that situation aside for now).  
Click to enlarge.

The situation posed a virtual game theory 'no win' for him.  Just as with President Bush (who also had the issue of a state Governor who should have been doing a bunch of things that prevented him as President from being more proactive), the mayor had 4 possible scenarios that could have happened.

  1. He calls in aid and proactively tries to help people, but and the storm materializes.  He's helped people, he's seen as smart and proactive, and a good leader.
  2. He calls in aid and the storm fizzles.  He looks like a fool.  He's wasted time and money on a non-event and comes across as neurotic.  He loses respect, and he probably loses votes.
  3. He doesn't call/send in aid and the storm doesn't happen.  He looks perhaps financially prudent but potentially also careless and unsympathetic to the plight of citizens.
  4. He doesn't act proactively to prepare and the storm happens.  This was the perception of President Bush after Katrina (also, a disorganized FEMA didn't help much). This appears as beyond tone deaf, it seems massively negligent.  That's something that costs voter confidence, votes, and possibly even lives if the situation is bad enough.

In that light it's easy to see why President Obama might want to come across as proactive and in charge of the situation with Hurricane Irene.  In the planning stages of his reaction, the calculus probably went something like this:

If the storm doesn't come the political loss could be mitigated by saying "look, we didn't want a repeat of Katrina".  He can turn that looking foolish into a possible small win.  And if it does materialize, he can take credit by saying "look, we didn't want a repeat of Katrina", thereby maximizing his own political gain by both looking better compared to President Bush, and once again reminding people of President Bush, whom he views as both ill-intentioned and incompetent.

But as I warned, I'm going to cut Obama a little slack as the hurricane hits New York and New Jersey with a much softer hand than it potentially could have.  There will be no Katrina level damages.  There will probably be some expensive clean up, but nothing too onerous and hopefully no loss of life in those states.

But pundits on the right would have been all over President Obama if he had done nothing and Hurricane Irene was a significant fraction as devastating as Hurricane Katrina was.  We would have roasted him for hypocrisy and incompetence and it would have been justifiable given liberal reactions to President Bush during Katrina.  So why give him any slack?  Because there is an intention to prevent destruction and save lives (beside the fact that in the face of nature, we are pretty much powerless to resist its force).

But nature is unpredictable (sorry Al Gore, but it's true), and it's better to err on the side of caution than to be too cavalier.

But that's where my slack for the president ends.  Let's not forget that he missed his Katrina moment with the Gulf oil spill.  This is seemingly his attempt at a do-over.  It's his envisioned shot at redemption for that oil spill that is possibly still spilling.  It's also important to consider the following;  there is going to be liberal spin after this.

Wait for it.

There will be inevitable unfair comparisons between Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Katrina.  Never mind the differences in the storm intensity, never mind the differences in geography, never mind the differences in the reactions and response times of Governor Christie now and Governor Blanco in Louisiana.  Never mind that  if Bush had acted prior to requests from Blanco he would have been seen as a totalitarian wingnut.  So the comparison will be unfair.  Yet there will be a lot of talk about Obama being proactive and being in charge.

It's already started;
US President Barack Obama warned the US east coast was in for a "long 72 hours" as he led his government's response to Hurricane Irene at a disaster command center in Washington.  
Obama on Saturday chaired a meeting at the National Response Coordination Center (NRCC) set up at the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) headquarters in Washington, which is marshaling federal and local hurricane-relief efforts.
"This is going to be a tough slog getting through this thing," Obama said during a video teleconference including senior federal officials and local government agencies in the east coast path of Irene.  
"It's going to be a long 72 hours. Obviously a lot of families are going to be affected ... the biggest concern I'm having right now has to do with flooding and power," Obama said during the videoconference.  
"(It) sounds like that's going to be an enormous strain on a lot of states" that could last days, or even longer in some cases, he said.
But this amounts to no better response than anything Bush did, except possibly as better media management.  Really the excerpted text amounted to a pep rally.  Sure it may have a minuscule positive effect, but I bet the President wasn't there manning the emergency services dispatch.  Nor should he be, but don't give him credit for doing so if he doesn't.  And if he does, the media should be questioning why he is instead of being more executive in his role.

In reality while this is relatively smaller scale natural disaster worthy of some attention and effort, it is not an epoch-shaking event.  But that won't stop Team Obama from trying to make it so.

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