Haley Barbour, a Republican, was governor of Mississippi from 2004 to 2012.
Having worked as governor with administrations of both parties on several natural disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, I am surprised — to the point of disbelief — at the reactions from both right and left that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) has said favorable things about the Obama administration’s efforts in these early days after Hurricane Sandy.
At the same time, I find it interesting that many in the media act as though it is of great political import that Christie praises Obama for trying to help — when the same media organizations challenged and criticized me for not attacking the Bush administration in the early days after Katrina.
Christie is no doubt operating under the same thinking I learned from my old high school football coach: Praise in public; criticize in private. I knew that it would be unwise to nitpick the people with whom my state would be partnered for years, especially when those people did more right than wrong.
Because of the damage wrought by Sandy, New Jersey and the federal government will work together for years in the sheltering, cleanup, recovery and rebuilding efforts. Really, their working relationship has barely begun.
As governor, Christie’s first responsibility is to the 8.8 million residents of New Jersey. As of Wednesday, more than 2 million homes and businesses did not have electricity. Many people lacked running water. About 6,000 required shelter. While local utilities tirelessly work to restore service, with tremendous support from power companies around the country, New Jersey residents look to state and local governments for help with things they can’t do for themselves.
Federal disaster assistance under the Stafford Act largely comes later — especially during the rebuilding stages — and will continue for years, but Christie knows it would do his constituents a great disservice to poke his finger in the president’s eye.
In the early stages after a large-scale disaster, a president mostly encourages state and local leaders. But even in the first few days, the federal government can help with certain resources.
After Katrina, which is still the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, the Defense Department provided Mississippi with several major infusions of diesel fuel that were critical to keeping first-responder and security vehicles moving. It’s likely the Obama administration has provided otherwise unavailable resources to New Jersey and the other affected states.
The administration’s assistance in providing spot resources and cheerleading is rightly appreciated, but this is a small bit of the federal-state relationship that follows a disaster.
This week, the Obama administration suddenly acquired decision-making authority over many future events in New Jersey because of the incredible number of programs and projects provided under federal disaster assistance laws — authority the next administration will have as well.
Many decisions will have enormous financial consequences for the states and localities affected by Sandy. Will states be required to pay 25 percent, 10 percent, perhaps nothing, to help finance emergency response and cleanup? Later, will states and localities be required to pay 25 percent of rebuilding costs? How much, if any, deviation from what existed will be allowed when rebuilding structures and infrastructure if federal money is used?
I feel certain that Congress will treat the states significantly harmed by Sandy as lawmakers treated Mississippi — giving state government as much flexibility as possible to allow recovery and rebuilding to fit localities’ needs and future plans.
Still, even with maximum flexibility, the federal government, whether under President Obama or President Romney, will have tremendous administrative influence over an unimaginable number of decisions through myriad regulatory and financial processes.
Republicans worried that Christie saying anything favorable about Obama is politically disloyal need to remember that a governor’s first responsibility is to his or her state and its people. Those in the media looking to determine political winners and losers in this situation should stop. We Republicans ought to be proud of public officials who, like Christie, are faithful to the job they’re elected to do.