Politics: Irene Is Not Just A Weather Story

Major storms like Hurricane Irene often bring with them political consequences. Over the last few days, politicians from the president on down to local mayors, have been showing up on the airwaves.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Earlier, Joel Rose referred to criticism of New York City Mayor Bloomberg. He was criticized for under-preparing for a snowstorm, and then was criticized for over-preparing for a hurricane. A natural disaster can cause political damage. And for more on that, we turn to NPR's Cokie Roberts as we do most Mondays. Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Hi, Steve. Welcome back.

INSKEEP: Thank you, glad to be back. What is the significance of a choice made by President Obama over the weekend? He chose to tour the offices, the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency with members of his cabinet.

ROBERTS: Well, people are giving FEMA pretty high marks these days. And of course, everyone in the government, at all levels, is thinking about Katrina. And one reason that the president was so eager to show that he's on top of this situation was that he wanted to make a contrast there with President Bush and Katrina.

And going to FEMA, it emphasizes the good things that government can do at a time when we, as a country, are engaged in a somewhat fierce debate over the role of government. The president said yesterday, this has been exemplary effort of how good government at every level should be responsive to people's needs, again, drawing a contrast to Katrina where the government failed at every level.

And in fact, FEMA has gotten its act together in many ways. There's still some big gaps in catastrophes. They don't do enough for kids in disasters. Um, but you're not hearing complaints about FEMA, and that could change because they're running out of money now, and some people could start complaining. But the president was on the phone with the governors in affected states before he went to the agency and said he heard no complaints. But he probably wouldn't have gone if he had heard complaints.

INSKEEP: Well, it's a difficult situation for the president, I suppose, politically. You mentioned Katrina. President Bush's approval rating started plunging after Katrina. President Obama's approval rating is already at some of the lowest points of his presidency, around 40 percent, give or take.

ROBERTS: And on the question of do you think he's a strong leader, a very important question for a president, those numbers have gone way down. So he had to come out and look like he was in charge here. Now does that make a big difference? Probably not. It just would have made a it would have hurt more if he hadn't done it. But by taking charge, it's not that it really helps that much as many politicians have found, as you pointed out, Mayor Bloomberg got hurt in the snowstorm. Whether he got helped here or not, is another question.

But look, hurricanes are not the president's problem. The economy is the president's problem, and a hurricane can affect that in good and bad ways. It can add some jobs for clean up, but it also boosts government spending and leaves insurance companies screaming and people who are supposed to have been protected frustrated. And Steve, this is the tenth billion dollar disaster of 2011.

INSKEEP: Hm, wow. Well, you mentioned the economy. The president in a few days is supposed to put forth a jobs plan, but what can he practically accomplish that could make a difference?

ROBERTS: Well, of course if there were a magic bullet to fix the jobs problem, the administration would have shot it a long time ago. But it looks like the president's likely to go to some form of the grand bargain on government spending and taxes that he and Speaker Boehner were talking about until Boehner's caucus made it clear that that was a no-go. By the way, House Republicans are feeling some need to talk about jobs as well and they're going to take on regulations this fall. Republican candidates will have their jobs plans.

But the president seems to think, politically, that he needs to show Congress what his direction is, back to that question of leadership - tell this new super committee how it's supposed to deal with the deficit and what he wants to see.

INSKEEP: OK.

ROBERTS: It will be interesting to see if he can accomplish that.

INSKEEP: OK. Thanks very much. That's NPR's Cokie Roberts, who joins us most Monday mornings.

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