As a matter of theology, I’m not a believer in the God of parking spaces or even, really weather events. But it sure did look, for a few days there, as if Hurricane Sandy was timed to help the sitting president look more presidential than he has of late. One NBC News anchor called it “a gift from above.” And, indeed, flying into stricken New Jersey just after the storm hit, President Obama appeared to be the anti-Katrina-era Bush. He was on the ground, in charge, promising quick aid, and waving bureaucratic regulations (something he could have fixed prior to the disaster, of course). Effusive praise from Governor Christie looked like a big deal too. Liberals gloated about how well Obama worked with the most partisan of governors . . . while forgetting that George Bush had no choice but to push aside the incompetent governor of Louisiana and send an Army general in to run the logistics of recovery competently.
What a difference a week makes.
New York and New Jersey are blue states, and it would take a lot to change that. But who knows how the millions of citizens, taxpayers, and homeowners who still don’t have power, who can’t get enough fuel to commute to work, and who are still doing without promised basic aid will vote? FEMA has been more than a few generators and water bottles short and a week late to Staten Island and New Jersey. Emergency expert Rudy Giuliani thinks FEMA has been as bad as it was in Katrina, and Obama has been AWOL since the initial bipartisan photo-op. Workers from southern and Midwestern power companies have shown up to do the actual hands-on restarting of power systems, house by house.
In addition to the working-class communities on and near the Jersey Shore that have been devastated; and the solidly middle-class parts of Queens and Staten Island, where entire communities have been wiped out by the storm and its aftermath; it is also the case that most of one of America’s wealthiest and most highly taxed counties — Westchester, N.Y. — was without power until this past weekend.
A friend who lives in Scarsdale explained what went on to me. While she and most of her perfectly well-heeled neighbors could have afforded to decamp to hotels near or far, they didn’t, because they were afraid to leave their houses. My friend has a generator — and saw friends without light or heat turn down offers to come over to warm up or spend the night. Why? Fear of looters. A few arrests of trespassers from out of the area just amplified the fears. My friend, being a right-thinking type, has a licensed gun. All of a sudden, her staunchly liberal neighbors understood the logic of it. “You don’t need it till you need it,” as she put it. I imagine that sitting in your lovely, unguarded home, in the dark, without power or a way to communicate in case of danger, with the lurking fear of the collapse of law and order, for several cold days has forced at least some people to think very hard about how much they want to trust government with their lives and property. Even the good liberals of Westchester’s money belt, or the solidly blue New Jersey suburbs, are capable of changing their minds about candidates at the last minute.
Photo-ops are one thing. But real people know from experience how well or how poorly the rescues and fixes are going. Given all that, I don’t see the hurricane and its aftermath as a political gift to Obama.