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Superstorm bolsters Obama’s big government argument

In an election campaign about the proper size of government, President Barack Obama suddenly has a powerful argument to make that bigger is better.

Democrats are citing the ravage caused by Hurricane Sandy as Exhibit A in their case against Republican nominee Mitt Romney's plan to slash federal spending, warning that cash-strapped state and local governments could not handle such disasters on their own.

And they have found an unlikely ally in New Jersey's Republican governor, Chris Christie, who has heaped effusive praise on Mr. Obama and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that is co-ordinating and paying for most of the relief efforts.

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The White House announced that Mr. Obama will tour the storm-ravaged New Jersey coast with Mr. Christie on Wednesday, after the governor took to the network morning shows on Tuesday to thank the President for cutting through "all normal FEMA mumbo jumbo."

While Hurricane Sandy has forced a timeout from politics as usual, the devastating storm's passage so close to a presidential election leaves both White House candidates with unexpected political risks to manage in the final week of the campaign.

Mr. Romney, who held a "storm relief" rally in Ohio on Tuesday but has refrained from campaigning, has not personally clarified his 2011 comment that he would turn over responsibility for disaster relief to the states and private sector. His campaign put out a statement affirming his preference that states "be in charge," insisting FEMA still has a role to play. But that only fuelled critics, who say his budget plan would gut the agency.

While Mr. Obama's prominent role in managing the crisis could pay off on election day, he might also suffer voters' wrath if FEMA bungles any aspect of the relief effort. The agency, though much improved since Hurricane Katrina, still has a reputation for being bureaucratic and slow to deliver requested equipment to states and cheques to victims.

"My instructions to the federal agency have been: Do not figure out why we can't do something; I want you to figure out how we do something," Mr. Obama said Tuesday during a visit to a Red Cross office in Washington. "No bureaucracy, no red tape. Get resources where they're needed as fast as possible … and for the duration."

Mr. Obama also referred to the increasing occurrence of "these kinds of big-impact storms" along the U.S. East Coast, indirectly making the case for enhanced FEMA funding in the face of repeated attempts by Republicans in Congress to cut its budget.

"FEMA is a much-maligned agency and has problems going back many years in several different administrations," noted Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University. "But FEMA is able to pull together the resources and experts to deal with a storm. There is a necessary role for that and maybe this catastrophe demonstrates that."

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Still, the House of Representatives' budget committee, chaired by GOP vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, has been sharply critical of FEMA and the use of disaster declarations by the Obama administration to send money to state and local governments.

"When disaster-relief decisions are not made judiciously, limited resources are diverted away from communities that are truly in need," according to the budget resolution adopted by Mr. Ryan's committee in March.

While Mr. Romney has not specifically called for cuts to FEMA's budget, he does propose capping federal spending at 20 per cent of gross domestic product. Only defence and entitlement programs such as Medicare would be spared caps on their budgets.

While critics of the Romney plan say it would require a 40-per-cent cut in so-called discretionary spending, under which FEMA's budget falls, a spokesman for Mr. Ryan told the Washington Post: "A Romney-Ryan administration will always ensure that disaster funding is there for those in need. Period."

Still, neither Republican candidate has explained how a Romney-Ryan administration could meet its promise to cap discretionary spending without affecting FEMA. Most states' finances, meanwhile, are in even worse shape than those of the federal government, leaving them unable to pick up the slack if FEMA gets downsized.

"When a catastrophe hits that can cause billions of dollars in damage and billions of dollars in lost tax revenue, states need help," Prof. Beck added. "And the federal government is the only place they can turn to get the kind of instantaneous help they need."

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No wonder Mr. Christie, who faces re-election himself next year, is suddenly Mr. Obama's biggest fan.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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