October 29-November 6, 2012: An Epic Nine Days

President Barack Obama holds up a pen as he speaks about the economy and the deficit, Friday, Nov. 9, 2012, in the East Room
President Barack Obama holds up a pen as he speaks about the economy and the deficit, Friday, Nov. 9, 2012, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

It is now just over two weeks since the leviathan Hurricane Sandy landed on our shores. She stretched over 1,000 miles wide and pounded 17 states, with the worst damage being done to the New Jersey coast, Staten Island and the southern shore communities of Brooklyn, New York. Sandy's lashing rain, fierce winds and huge tidal surge quickly overwhelmed the scattered and insufficient defenses that had been prepared for it. New York and New Jersey are supposed to be focal points of much of our Homeland Security resources and planning, but it is unlikely that even the best laid plans would have made much of a difference against such a ferocious natural disaster. Of course, the warnings have been there for years, with 2005's Hurricane Katrina providing a vivid example of the fury nature can unleash on a vulnerable urban population. We can only hold our collective breath as we await the inevitable arrival of the next Katrina to the Gulf region -- or Andrew to Florida, or Sandy to New Jersey and New York.

2011's Hurricane Irene was supposed to have been a once-in-a-century storm for the northeast, yet just one year later Sandy appeared, wreaking even more havoc. Apparently, those concerned scientists who have been warning us for decades about climate change are on to something, and these un-natural disasters make the fact that this critical issue was woefully absent during the presidential debates and campaigns even more striking -- despite the president's almost flippant attempt at resurrecting it during his election night comments. In the next four years, climate change policy must become a top priority, Mr. President. You can begin by building a coalition of nations to start shrinking our collective carbon footprint, because this global issue demands global solutions.

Urban planning also needs to be rethought immediately for our major coastal cities. New York, which is surrounded by water, ground to a halt as bridges werebuffeted by 100-mile-an-hour winds, and tunnels -- as well as airports -- were flooded by the rising tides. Boardwalks at Coney Island were shredded, and the little community of Breezy Point in Queens lost over 100 homes to fires that started and raged out-of-control during the storm. Meanwhile, Staten Island still looks like a war zone, with whole communities leveled (it has been estimated that up to 40,000 have been made homeless by this storm -- unprecedented numbers), and most of Manhattan's downtown lost power and was pitched into darkness for almost a week, with millions left stranded in high rises with no power, water or heat. Trees fell across the city, and flood waters rose killing many -- including children -- and generators failed in critical facilities like NYU's Langone Medical Center in Kips Bay, Manhattan, forcing over 200 patients -- including 10 newborns and a young mother who gave birth during the storm -- to be evacuated, many being carried down flights of stairs to waiting ambulances to take them to other hospitals.

Yet, among the chaos, many stories of incredible generosity and kindness emerged, as New Yorkers helped each other, with the aid of an army of out-of-state volunteers -- that young mother from Langone and her husband had to give directions to the Mt. Sinai Hospital volunteer ambulance driver, who had come to help from California and didn't know his way around the city. Even a large group of runners set aside their disappointment at the cancellation of the New York City Marathon to run the route anyway for charity. Four thousand electrical workers have come from other states to make repairs and get lights up and running. And after two weeks, all of the subways have finally gone back on line, although the long-term effects that all of that saltwater that flooded the tunnels will have on the system's already fragile electric grid will likely keep MTA head Joe Lhota sleepless for many nights to come.

One bright spot throughout those terrible days was the terrific leadership shown by Mayor Bloomberg in New York City and Governor Chris Christie in New Jersey, as well as President Obama, who joined a grateful Governor Christie in a helicopter to survey the damage in that state. The devastation offered a unique opportunity for bipartisan, non-political cooperation and action, with both the Obama and Romney campaigns suspending operations for two days to address the crisis. Constant updates filled the airways around the clock from Mayor Bloomberg and his agency heads, and a reinvigorated and professional FEMA -- no "Brownie" in sight -- performed well in aiding desperate home owners and providing information on how to receive federal assistance. New York's Governor Cuomo was also a visible presence throughout, both on the air and on streets of devastated communities. He activated the National Guard to assist in delivering life-saving water, food and other essentials to needy communities. The Red Cross also swung into action, providing onsite triage and hot meals to those suffering in the flood zone. Occupy Sandy, was formed in response to the storm, donating needed supplies, including clothing and food, to several devastated communities and delivering volunteers to those hard-hit communities.

This real-world crisis temporarily distracted the nation from the final days of one of the nastiest and most expensive presidential elections in history. With many communities in the northeast still without power or much of a functioning local government, November 6th -- Election Day -- came and over 120 million of us went out and made our voices heard at the ballot box. That night, we tuned in for election results of a campaign that took much of our attention and energy for 18 months, and the tension was palpable as we waited to find out who our next president would be. The turnout in New York was big, as stressed New Yorkers wanted to do their civic duty despite the circumstances. Long lines were not unusual, but New Yorkers would cast their votes no matter what.

What came out of the election was nothing short of astonishing. With mountains of dirty money from the 1 percent and their shady special interest groups stacked against him, coupled with disenfranchisement attempts in some of the battleground states, President Obama won four more years in the White House. The Obama campaign was brilliant in putting "boots on the ground" at the grassroots level while deftly working the internet to reach its millions of supporters. Their organization was vastly superior to anything the Romney campaign -- or Karl Rove and his shamelessly self-serving billionaire backers -- could muster.

It also helped that Romney was not the best challenger and that the country has had quite enough of private equity banksters ripping off hard-working Americans. His holding back tax returns and callous comments about the poor and the hard-working "47 percent" showed he was not to be trusted with the presidency. His attacks on "Obamacare" also backfired, rallying many Americans to support the president's healthcare program. He also failed to distance himself from the idiots and nutjobs in his party who kept attacking women with their ignorant and delusional claims about rape and pregnancy. Happily, Romney was joined in defeat by GOP Senate candidates Richard Mourdock and Todd Aiken, as well as Joe Walsh, Allen West and Frank Guinta in the House, among others. Additional great news to come out of this election is that for the first time we will have the most inclusive Congress in history representing the increasingly multicultural fabric of modern America. There will be 61 women, 43 African Americans, 10 Asian Americans and six LGBT members welcomed into the 113th Congress in January. Significantly, two women were added to the Senate, bringing their numbers up to 20 and increasing the Democratic majority to 55.

If anything was proven in this election, it was that the GOP is a dying party and its relevancy on the American political stage is becoming more and more in doubt. It can no longer continue to represent mainly older white males. The Obama campaign understood that and focused its appeal on younger voters, Latinos, African Americans, Asians and women. There is little doubt the women's and Latino votes were significant, and that the Latino vote has grown considerably in just eight years. The demographics of this nation have clearly changed, but candidate Romney seemed to notice none of this and was unable to bring in any of these important constituencies to support his campaign. Instead, it looked more like he was trying to drag America back to some time before the civil rights era. Romney HQ in Boston on election night offered a vivid look at who his supporters were -- old, white, wealthy, and all in shock that their candidate was not elected. Romney himself had only prepared a victory speech. In the end he remained clueless.

Now is the time for the president and progressives to build on the victories of November 6th. First and foremost, Mr. President, is that the so-called "fiscal cliff" debate should not include Social Security, as it does not contribute to the deficit -- being paid for by payroll taxes -- and currently has a surplus of $2.7 trillion, which will allow it to deliver 100 percent of benefits for the next 21 years, according to the Social Security Administration and a recent article by Senator Bernie Sanders. Jobs, securing our safety nets, immigration, tax reform, climate change and rising income inequality -- these are our pressing imperatives. Some bigger goals that can be moved on now would be removing the foul money from our politics by passing an amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision and going to public funding of campaigns.

The president has a plateful heading into 2013, and he will need to use every trick in the book to take on and overcome a quickly re-entrenching Boehner and his House Republicans. If Mr. Obama really wants to have a successful second term, he should get his brilliant campaign team to focus all of their efforts on "cleaning House" of obstructionist Republicans in 2014. It's likely that is the only way anything will ever get done in the next four years.

How the president addresses the "fiscal cliff" with the Republicans will be very telling about how he will govern in the next four years. No caves Mr. President. The people are watching.

-- with Jonathan Stone