As superstorm Sandy-related blackouts and gas shortages continue in the Northeast, mayors, governors, and the White House are scrambling to contain building anger and frustration that some experts suggest could spill over into next week’s election.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has worked with Washington to fast track gas shipments amid six-hour waits and fistfighting at gas pumps. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie has ordered gas rationing in 12 hard-hit coastal counties – a dramatic move intended to cool anxious and angry residents.
Just moments after vowing that the New York Marathon would proceed, Mayor Michael Bloomberg canceled the event on Friday, saying the race would only sow disunity amid suffering on Staten Island, where the majority of 41 New York City casualties perished in hurricane Sandy’s historic storm surge.
Certainly, the scramble for essentials in the densely populated hurricane strike zone is primarily to help cold and hungry residents, and to turn a rescue and response effort into a recovery and rebuilding mission by next week.
But while many believed the immediate response to the two-day “superstorm” – especially newfound comity between President Obama and blunt-spoken New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – showcased competent leadership by incumbents, there’s clearly concern that images of frustration and suffering could become politically damaging for those tasked with overseeing a return to normalcy.
“This superstorm, in fact, is likely to have incalculable effects on the political scene and the kinds of leadership and public investment we will see in coming years,” writes columnist Darrell Delamaid, on the MarketWatch blog. “History may remember Sandy not only for the devastation it caused but also for its impact on American politics.”
To be sure, the storm reminded many Americans about the value of strong central governments able to assist local responders and fast-track supplies. Americans also gave high praise to both President Obama and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney for hopping off the campaign trail and “de-politicizing” the rescue and recovery phase after the massive storm hammered the nation’s northeastern shore, killing over 100 Americans.
According to polls, Americans have largely approved of the government’s early response to Sandy. As presidential campaigns were briefly suspended, President Obama, especially, stood to gain as he drew praise from governors, had the opportunity to look presidential only days before the Nov. 6 election, and offered and delivered immediate help to hard-hit areas.
"The better the response, the better Obama is going to look," University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato told CNN earlier this week. "The worse the response ... the worse he's going to look. This presidential moment could help or hurt him."
But even as utility workers are slowly getting the power on in affected areas (Manhattanites cheered in the streets Friday when more lights flickered on), the recovery and how it’s perceived has become more treacherous, especially for incumbents, whose political careers could well ride on how their leadership is gauged and evaluated after one of the biggest hurricanes ever to strike the Northeast.
In New York City, the debate over whether to cancel the annual New York City marathon became symbolic of how difficult it can be to level an appropriate disaster response without appearing politically tone-deaf.
"When you have a significant amount of people voicing real pain and unhappiness over its running, you have to hear that," said Howard Wolfson, deputy mayor for government affairs and communications, explaining the late-in-the-day decision to cancel the race.
But more disturbing, complaints from NYC police and city garbage workers about being assigned to the race while people on Staten Island continued to suffer also fed into a simmering partisan perception that some residents weren’t getting rapid help because they weren’t natural political constituents for the city’s political elites – a similar charge to that leveled against George W. Bush in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in 2005.
While it’s governors and mayors who will face either approval or derision for their response to the storm, the appearance of desperate, angry people on the nightly news could also darken perceptions that Obama, especially, has been able to showcase his leadership in a positive way, some political observers suggest.
“You need to understand that those who are on the TV claiming that hurricane Sandy helps Obama are out of their minds crazy,” writes blogger Kevin DuJan on the HillBuzz blog. “People are getting angry about the slow-moving union workers taking their sweet time getting life back to normal. Next, voters are going to be angry that the Democrats aren’t doing anything to speed up the restoration. There is no else for affected voters to be angry at but Democrats. No way on Earth that is good for Obama.”
Other experts dismiss that idea, saying that the lasting images and perceptions about the response will linger more on the extent to which mayors, governors, and the president set aside politics in order to help fellow Americans in need.
“People want to see a strong leader [after a disaster], they don’t want to see a politician," Mark Merritt, an emergency management expert who has worked with both Republican and Democratic administrations, told Voice of America on Friday.