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Hurricane Irene struck the United States in the middle of an argument. It's a fight over what responsibilities the federal government should assume. Federal agencies have coordinated the response to the storm, even as state and local officials scramble to stay ahead of events. Now that skies are clearing, the storm becomes an example for political debate.

Here's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: President Obama, like every other politician in America, has the lessons of Hurricane Katrina seared into his memory. He made sure that his emergency team was prepared and competent. And yesterday, he gave an update from the Rose Garden.

President BARACK OBAMA: The effects are still being felt across much of the country, including in New England and states like Vermont where there's been an enormous amount of flooding. So our response continues, but Im going to make sure that FEMA and other agencies are doing everything in their power to help people on the ground.

LIASSON: FEMA has received good reviews even from the presidents Republican opponents, like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

But natural disasters are one of the ironies of politics, a competent response wont help much but an incompetent one can really hurt.

Andy Kohut is the president of the Pew Research Center.

ANDY KOHUT (President, Pew Research Center): We saw President Bushs fairly bad approval ratings become awful approval ratings in response to the management of Katrina. And there was some risk here for President Obama. But theres not much of an upside in terms of public attitudes for doing ones job well, when it comes to something like a hurricane or other basic functions of government.

LIASSON: but the response to Hurricane Irene could feed into a larger debate about the size and role of government - a debate that will be front and center in next year's presidential election.

Even before Irene was a swirl on the weather map, President Obama had the beginnings of his argument in place. On his bus trip thru the Midwest, he urged voters not to confuse government with politics.

President OBAMA: People are tired of politics, but theyre not tired of government. They may not realize it, but government are our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Government are our teachers in the classroom. Government are the FEMA folks who help people when theres a flood or a tornado or a natural disaster.

LIASSON: At least one Republican presidential candidate, Ron Paul, thinks FEMA should be dismantled. on Fox News this Sunday, Paul described FEMA as example of a bloated federal government.

Representative RON PAUL (Republican, Texas): We've been conditioning our people that FEMA will take care of us and everything will be OK. But you dont - you try to make these programs work the best you can, but you can't just keeping saying, oh, they need money. Well, we're out of money. This country is bankrupt.

LIASSON: Paul is on the extreme of this debate. Even most conservatives acknowledge the need for some federal government response to emergencies.

Still, former Clinton advisor Chris Lehane thinks Irene highlights a fundamental debate.

CHRIS LEHANE (Former Presidential Advisor): I mean do we want roads? Do we want fire and police protection? Do we want a fully trained military? Do we want a government thats engaged in creating jobs? I do think theres a potential opening there, coming out of the debt ceiling debate, where, you know, polls made pretty clear that the public was not thrilled at how the Republicans handled the situation - particularly their willingness to shut down the government and potentially put the U.S. economy in a very perilous position.

LIASSON: Republicans may have suffered from the debt ceiling debate, but Democrats, as the traditional defenders of government, may have an even bigger burden. The latest Gallup poll shows that only 17 percent of Americans have a positive impression of the federal government.

Andy Kohut.

KOHUT: We have, right now, one of the lowest percentages of people saying they can trust government in polls taken since 1958. And the principle driver of opinions about government have to do with satisfaction with national conditions.

LIASSON: And the number one national condition is the economy. Kohut says that voters' view of government tends to rise and fall, not with governments' performance, but with voters' perceptions of the country's economic conditions. So with nine percent unemployment and a faltering recovery, its hard to imagine a competent response to Irene - or for that matter the killing of Osama bin Laden - giving President Obama anything more than a fleeting bump in the polls.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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