Sandy Underscores Debate Over Government's Role
President Obama offered thoughts and prayers Tuesday for all those who have been affected by Sandy. He also offered something more tangible: the full resources of the federal government.
"The most important message I have for them is that America's with you," he said. "We are standing behind you, and we are going to do everything we can to help you get back on your feet."
For Obama, the federal government is a critical vehicle for that kind of help. Republicans put more faith in local government, and even voluntary efforts.
On Tuesday in Ohio, Mitt Romney sponsored a canned food drive for storm victims and told a parable about the virtue of individual action. When he was in high school, Romney said, a small group of students managed the big task of cleaning up a trash-strewn football field, after each student was given responsibility for scouring one small section.
"And if everybody cleans their lane, why, we'll be able to get the job done," he said. "And so today we're cleaning one lane, if you will. We're able to gather some goods for some people that are in our lane. We're going to help them."
Romney did not suggest that this kind of voluntary effort alone is a substitute for the government. But during a Republican primary debate last year, he did argue that disaster relief should be as decentralized as possible.
"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," he said at the time. "And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that's even better."
State disaster officials have sometimes clashed with the federal government, though that's been less of a problem in recent years. Unlike his predecessor, President George W. Bush, Obama named a disaster professional to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
FEMA director Craig Fugate understands the states' perspective — he used to run Florida's emergency agency. Obama has promised to keep red tape from getting in the way of recovery.
"I told the mayors and the governors if they're getting 'no' for an answer somewhere in the federal government, they can call me personally at the White House," the president said.
So far, the federal government seems to be delivering. Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey had nothing but praise for the federal response when he spoke Tuesday on Good Morning America.
"I have to say, the administration — the president himself and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate have been outstanding with us so far," Christie said. "And I want to thank the president personally for his personal attention to this."
New Jersey and most of the states hit hard by the storm were already reliably Democratic in the presidential race, but that's not true of disasters generally. Texas leads the nation in federal disaster declarations, with deep-red Oklahoma not far behind.
Even so, for Republicans bent on reducing federal spending, the FEMA budget remains an attractive target. When Romney was asked directly during that same GOP debate last year whether disaster relief should be on the chopping block, here's what he said:
"We should take all of what we're doing at the federal level and say, what are the things we're doing that we don't have to do? And those things we've got to stop doing. Because we're borrowing $1.6 trillion more this year than we're taking in. ... We cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids."
That's an inconvenient comment in light of this week's storm. Romney ignored reporters' questions about FEMA funding at Tuesday's canned food drive.
President Obama will continue to make the case for an active federal role Wednesday, not at a campaign rally but by touring hard-hit New Jersey.
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