The gods of politics abhor predictability and delight in upsetting humans' applecarts. Just when Mitt Romney was doing so well, along came hurricane Sandy, wreaking devastation on the eastern seabord.
Sandy has given President Obama a gift: the opportunity to use FEMA to clearly demonstrate to voters the enormous difference between his policies and those of his "starve the beast" opponent, Mitt Romney.
How to use FEMA:
How can Obama use FEMA to draw such a stark comparison between his view of what the federal government should do, and Romney's downsizing view?
Obama should immediately place FEMA front and centre in the debate for the remaining week of campaigning.
He can do so if he reacts fast – today is good, tomorrow is okay, Friday is too late – by stating that he will immediately table with the House and Senate a bill to increase the funds available to FEMA to assist those Americans and those states and cities hit by Sandy to rebuild. The funds should be used for grants to needy cases, long-term low-interest loans, guarantees of loans, and other uses.
Obama should set a high dollar figure on this increase in funding for FEMA – say, $50 billion.
And he should make it very very clear that it is a one-time increase, targeted at Sandy, and insist on fast action by the Senate and House to pass the bill.
Romney is on record as favouring the slashing of the FEMA budget and the devolution of its powers to the states:
Mitt Romney's comments about the Federal Emergency Management Agency, made at a CNN Republican primary debate in June 2011, are receiving renewed attention Monday as Hurricane Sandy bears down on the East Coast.
At the debate, held in Manchester, New Hampshire, Romney answered a question from CNN chief national correspondent John King on whether or not he'd give states a larger role in dealing with emergencies, and by extension reduce funding to FEMA. King asked, "FEMA is about to run out of money, and there are some people who say do it on a case-by-case basis and some people who say, you know, maybe we're learning a lesson here that the states should take on more of this role. How do you deal with something like that?"
In response to King's question, Romney said, "Absolutely. Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that's even better."
The now-GOP nominee continued, "Instead of thinking in the federal budget, what we should cut - we should ask ourselves the opposite question. What should we keep? We should take all of what we're doing at the federal level and say, what are the things we're doing that we don't have to do?"
King interjected, asking "Including disaster relief?"
"We cannot - we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids," Romney said. "It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we'll all be dead and gone before it's paid off. It makes no sense at all."
Obama favours using the state to help those hit by disasters.
Now imagine how Romney will have to react to the Obama drive to increase funding for FEMA in order to help the 60 million Americans hurt by Sandy.
The conversation for the last week of campaigning will be about FEMA, about who will be helped by the Obama-FEMA bill (imagine the television shots of individuals in front of their shattered homes, tearful mayors pointing to broken bridges, panoramic shots of beaches stripped of sand), and Romney's explanations of why very rich Americans deserve lower taxes but ordinary Americans do not deserve a helping hand from their fellow Americans through extra funds for FEMA.
However, my guess is that the Obama team will blow it by not reacting fast enough. So far they have been less than impressive in running an election campaign.