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US Election: Pre-Poll Mega-Storm Affects Politics

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By Ernest Corea*
IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

WASHINGTO DC (IDN) - Voters keeping a sharp lookout for an “October Surprise” - an unexpected event that could affect the November 6 presidential election – could not have been disappointed. They experienced several.

Some past October surprises have been both dramatic and significant. To name a few: the British-French-Israeli conspiracy and invasion to wrest control of the Suez Cana from Egypt (1956), Henry Kissinger's announcement about the Vietnam war that "peace is at hand" (1972), and the news leak, subsequently confirmed, that some years earlier George W. Bush was arrested for drunken driving in Texas (2000).

The most dramatic October Surprise of 2012 was, of course, "Frankenstorm" Sandy. It might be argued that the hurricane embedded in a massive storm was not exactly a "surprise" because meteorologists predicted its arrival with awesome accuracy. What constituted the surprise especially for non-experts living in the areas hit by the storm were its ferocity and the extent of human suffering it wrought.

Multiple Impact

Although Sandy spread its devastation far and wide, the three states that bore the brunt of Sandy’s impact were Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. All three felt the impact of the storm in numerous ways. People died or were injured. The death toll at the time of writing is over ninety.  Thirty eight deaths were in New York and of these, 20 were in Staten Island – the "forgotten borough."

Initially, many families in the affected area suffered shortages of food, water and shelter. However, emergency shelters were set up pretty quickly through the collaborative efforts of federal, state, and local institutions including non-governmental organisations.

Some homes and other buildings were totally destroyed or so badly damaged that they appeared to be beyond repair. That was heart rending for many of those affected. As one displaced woman told a reporter: "I want to go home but I have no home."

Some hospitals had to be evacuated. Roads were clogged with sand moved inland by powerful winds, or by flood water mixed with oil, grease, and sewerage. Cars and boats were blown way away from where they were parked. A swath of homes, stores and other buildings were in the dark, bereft of electricity supplies.

Combined Effort

Confronted by what was seen as a national disaster, both presidential candidates briefly suspended their campaigning, leaving that task to surrogates. President Barack Obama returned to the White House where he took personal responsibility for leading recovery efforts.

FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) was the lead agency for this effort. FEMA's performance was watched with anxiety because it had under-performed shoddily under the George W. Bush Administration when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and adjacent areas.

In the states affected by Sandy, FEMA – under new management – has so far shown no signs of repeating its Katrina fiasco. In addition, state governors provided visible leadership. Very quickly, a collaborative partnership developed between Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey whose state was devastated, and Obama.

Christie is a robust and pugnacious Republican, given to dismissing critics as "idiots" and resorting to "picturesque patter" when heaping ridicule on the Democratic Party’s leadership.

He was earlier the "candidate of choice" for the forthcoming presidential election among several Republican activists, one of whom said in public: "If we don't run Chris Christie, Mitt Romney will be the candidate, and he will lose." Christie decided to sit out the 2012 election and Romney invited him to deliver the keynote address at the Republican Party's convention which formally named Romney as the party's standard bearer.

In boisterous remarks, Christie scorned Obama's leadership. The president, he claimed, was like a man in a darkened room who felt the walls to locate the light switch of leadership and failed to find it. All this was left behind in the face of grim adversity.

Obama visited New Jersey and, with Christie, toured the worst hit areas in Marine One, the presidential helicopter, then walked among displaced people comforting them and assuring them of continued support until the job of rebuilding what Sandy destroyed was complete.

During a brief, impromptu media briefing, the two erstwhile political opponents spoke like the founding members at the launch of a mutual admiration society. Soon, visible signs of a federal presence both on land and on sea indicated that the promise of continued collaboration was being fulfilled.

Key Support

The Obama-Christie collaboration was sandwiched between two key political events. First, General Colin Powell, a Republican who served as Secretary of State during the first term of President George W. Bush and was a former distinguished Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, endorsed Obama's candidature.

He respected Romney, Powell said during an appearance on a CBS television program, but was concerned that the Republican candidate had not thought through some of the propositions that he espoused. He did not know "which Romney" the country would get if Romney was elected.

Romney remained silent in the face of this turn of events but one of his leading surrogates, former White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, openly suggested that the endorsement was based on "appearance" – i.e. skin colour.

Sununu had played the race card before, when he suggested that Obama should learn to be an American. This time, however, his race-based comment threatened to create a furious backlash. Soon, the Sununu comment was rescinded. What Sununu and others of his ilk should realize and remember is that neither withdrawal nor apology removes without trace the effect of what has been clearly said and, presumably, meant. Tomorrow's history books will inevitably record Sununu’s disparagement.

Climate Change

The second event referred to above was the endorsement of Obama's candidature by Michael Bloomberg, the highly regarded Mayor of New York. The main reason for the endorsement, Bloomberg explained, was the need for concerted action against the perils of climate change which, he felt, had aggravated the recent mega-storm.

Bloomberg had kept himself above the electoral fray and his conversion to a more active position was no doubt conditioned by his reaction to Sandy. In dealing with climate change, he said, "we need leadership from the White House – and over the past four years, President Barack Obama has taken major steps to reduce our carbon consumption, including setting higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks….."

The mayor praised Romney for his past actions on climate change but said that Romney has "reversed course, abandoning the very cap-and-trade program he once supported." Romney has also "reversed course" on "immigration, sale of illegal guns, abortion rights and health care policy," the mayor added. "If the 1994 or 2003 version of Mitt Romney were running for President, I may well have voted for him," said Bloomberg.

Bloomberg's endorsement was quite remarkable, coming as it did shortly after the mayor had discouraged Obama from visiting New York to gain a first-hand impression of the city's most pressing needs.

Was the New York Mayor's conversion his reaction to what went on in neighbouring New Jersey when Obama visited there – the public scrutiny, the impression of full federal-state engagement, the public adulation, the photo ops…..?

Whatever the reason, it will in the first instance strengthen collaboration between federal and state agencies as New York struggles to regain its renowned vibrancy. It will also give something of an advantage on the campaign trail to Obama as he and Romney make their closing pitches to the voters.

Winding Down

As the campaigns wind down, speculation continues as to who will emerge victorious. Issues have been explored, choices have been outlined, and campaign workers continue their efforts. The question that most voters ask each other is: "Who do you think will win?" This is not a question to which there is an easy answer, given the surfeit of polls some of which contradict each other.

Some years ago, during a break in a contentious meeting of the Non-aligned Movement’s foreign ministers, a reporter asked the conference spokesman: "What will the Final Declaration of the conference emphasise?" The answer: "I am not an astrologer."

If as many polls suggest the presidential election race of 2012 is "very close" it would probably need a competent astrologer to predict its outcome as well. So – on to Nov. 6. Until then, speculation reigns.

*The writer has served as Sri Lanka's ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon 'Daily News' and the Ceylon 'Observer', and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore 'Straits Times'. He is Editorial Adviser to IDN-InDepthNews and President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council. [IDN-InDepthNews – November 4, 2012]

Ernest Corea's previous IDN articles:
http://www.indepthnews.info/index.php/search?searchword=ernest%20corea&ordering=newest&searchphrase=exact&limit=20

Copyright © 2012 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Photo: President Barack Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie talk with local residents at the Brigantine Beach Community Center in Brigantine, N.J., Oct. 31, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

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