President Obama is visiting the Jersey shore Tuesday. No, he and Michelle and the girls aren’t on vacation – for that they’re going to Martha’s Vineyard later in the summer. Mr. Obama is touring New Jersey beach communities ravaged by superstorm Sandy to see how rebuilding efforts are progressing.
He and Gov. Chris Christie (R) probably will stroll a bit of boardwalk somewhere to help promote the fact that the shore has reopened for business. There’s no word yet on whether cotton candy or skee ball will be involved.
Governor Christie’s taken a lot of criticism from fellow Republicans for hosting Obama, if you remember. Some in the party even blame Christie’s praise of Obama, along with the federal disaster response, for Mitt Romney’s loss last November.
But fewer pixels have been spent on Obama’s role in this bromance. What’s in it for him?
After all, in a political sense the president is building up a possible successor from the other party. If the moderate Christie can win the Republican nomination, he’d probably be a formidable foe for Obama’s side in 2016.
Well, for one thing the Jersey shore stroll shows Obama as bipartisan. It’s a rare moment nowadays when the president gets to engage with Republicans of any sort in a common response to a problem. That’s partly why he traveled to Moore, Okla., on Sunday to meet with officials there and console victims of last week’s tornadoes.
New Jersey is also the heart of a densely populated region. If Christie runs on a national ticket, he’d probably take his home state, but Obama wants his party to remain as popular there as possible – for upcoming midterm elections and state races, if nothing else.
But the big reason Obama wants to appear heavily engaged in Jersey reconstruction is the fairly obvious one: Disaster response is a basic function of government on all levels, from municipalities to the Oval Office. It is something that voters all across the country pay close attention to and judge in a fairly nonpartisan manner. If Obama looks like he’s shortchanging New Jersey (and Oklahoma) to a certain extent, they’ll notice that in Ohio.
Remember hurricane Katrina, and the perceived slow federal response, and “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”? Of course you do. George W. Bush was widely criticized for his actions in the wake of Katrina, including patting his embattled FEMA director, Michael Brown, on the back, rhetorically speaking. Obama does not want that to happen to him.
Georgetown University political scientist Daniel Hopkins wrote an interesting piece on the political fallout of natural disasters for Washington Post’s Wonkblog. In summarizing various studies on the subject, Mr. Hopkins found that voters don’t blame politicians for events beyond their control, such as the disasters themselves. But they do pay close attention to how politicians act in the aftermath.
“Multiple studies indicate that when incumbents act in voters’ interests in the wake of a disaster, they are rewarded with increased support. After disasters, people rise to the occasion, and so do voters,” Hopkins concluded.