In New Jersey, as Barack Obama and Chris Christie met last week to survey the devastation Hurricane Sandy caused, the President placed a reassuring hand on the heartsick governor's shoulder. Later, the President embraced storm victim Donna Vanzant in Brigantine, N.J., and told her and all East Coast residents that he and the nation "are here for you."
"Here for you" means the federal government would muster all its resources to help Americans devastated by a deadly hurricane to restore some sense of normalcy to their upturned lives and to help rebuild their homes and communities.
Americans unfailingly rally to the aid of those in need. A youngster helps grandma across the street. A community builds a wheelchair ramp for an injured veteran. Sometimes, though, the tragedy is too massive for the scale of help that families and neighborhoods can provide. Then Americans turn to the federal government to help them deliver safety and solace. This is among the most profound and basic duties of government. Barack Obama has insisted that it be performed well because he believes government can be -- and must be -- a force for good. President Barack Obama greets New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on arriving in Atlantic City after Hurricane Sandy. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
It's not a matter of big government or small government. Although, frankly, a government small enough to drown in a bathtub, as Republican lobbyist Grover Norquist seeks, would not be large enough to respond to catastrophes such as Sandy's destruction across 15 states or to the 750 tornadoes that ripped through the South and Midwest, including Joplin, Mo., in April and May last year. And a federal government that fobbed off responsibility for emergency management to the states or to private enterprise, as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said he wanted to do during the GOP primary debates, would not be prepared to respond adequately to American catastrophes.
Romney has walked back those statements now, contending after Sandy hit that he wouldn't eliminate the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). But the nation has seen what happens when a president is careless about the federal government helping Americans during emergencies. That would be, specifically, former President Bush's reaction to Hurricane Katrina.
First, Bush chose patronage over qualifications in naming a FEMA director, appointing to the post an Arabian Horse Association functionary who had absolutely no experience or training in emergency management. Then when Katrina hit, the administration virtually ignored it -- failing to respond to pleas for help from desperate governors and mayors; failing to cut short vacations, or even meals, to work on hurricane response, failing to provide available federal resources as Americans died in the Superdome.
In stark contrast, Obama demanded credentials when he selected his FEMA director. He went so far as to ignore party affiliation -- appointing William Craig Fugate, a Republican. Fugate, who began his career as a firefighter and paramedic, was director of the Florida emergency management agency -- a position that exposed him to rigors of responding to disasters, particularly hurricanes.
Even before Sandy struck the East Coast, Obama and Fugate began planning and coordinating a response. Proactively, the President called 20 governors and mayors to offer help and arrange expedited disaster declarations. He called Christie several times during the storm and gave the governor his personal phone number so Christie could reach him directly. He ordered FEMA and other federal officials to respond to calls from political leaders within 15 minutes. Everyone focused on the impending calamity.
Before the hurricane made landfall, FEMA organized search and rescue teams, sent 139 ambulances to New York and established support centers with supplies like generators and blankets in New Jersey and Massachusetts. By Monday evening, when the storm hit New Jersey with winds of 80 miles an hour, FEMA had already delivered hundreds of thousands of ready-to-eat meals and bottled water for New Jersey residents who might need it. There would be no Superdome fiasco in New Jersey or New York.
By Wednesday, President Obama joined Christie in New Jersey to assess the devastation in person. A clearly exhausted Christie, who had previously been a vocal critic of the President, expressed strong support for Obama's response to the storm, saying:
"The president has been all over this, and he deserves great credit."
When tragedy occurs, we all naturally turn to our families first, brothers and sisters, parents and cousins, aunts and uncles who we know we can depend on, who we know will give us comfort and relief.
Obama sees government as an extended family. He referred to the federal agencies he collected to respond to Hurricane Sandy as a federal family. We all have immediate biological families, but we all also belong to the American family. We share American experiences and values, privileges and responsibilities.
President Obama has said many times that he believes we all are our brothers' and sisters' keepers. Here's what he says in his speeches:
"Yes, our road is longer, but we travel it together. We don't turn back. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up."
That is what he sees American family members doing for each other. That is how Americans pull together to help fellow Americans struck by tragedy. And when the tragedy is of gargantuan proportions, Obama believes that to respond effectively, the federal family must be more than competent. It must be good to do good.
In addition to providing the bottled water and rescue teams, the federal family must, just as any good family member would, just as President Obama did in New Jersey, wrap consoling arms around the traumatized.