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The Politics of Disaster: How Leaders Can Transcend Bare-Knuckle Politics for the Public Good

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There are some important lessons to be drawn from the extraordinary confluence of Hurricane Sandy blasting its way through the northeast, just as we get to the final days of one of the most contentious national political campaigns in memory.

Bush v. Gore in 2000 had plenty of drama, but most of that was centered on hanging chads and the pure suspense of the Supreme Court determining the final outcome. Yet, this year's battles for control of the White House and Congress seem more polarized than usual, even more ideological than the last few presidential election cycles.

Sandy arrived on Monday; and, in short order, a lull seemed to settle over the campaign. America stopped and caught its breath, watching this storm wreak havoc in New York and New Jersey. At times the pictures and videos were reminiscent of images we recall of disasters past, especially Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans. But the campaigns slowed down, seeming truly less relevant -- at least for a few days.

Then, a beautiful thing happened. Amid the rubble of New Jersey beach towns, wide-scale power outages, an epic fire in Queens and the failure of back-up generators at major New York City hospitals, we saw two elected officials walking together in a badly battered community on the Jersey shore. Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey strode together, looking at the destruction, talking to suffering residents, reassuring them -- and discussing strategies to bring relief as rapidly as possible.

And across the river in New York, Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo and Republican/ Independent Mayor Mike Bloomberg were bound together in a quest to identify and meet every one of the challenges created by superstorm Sandy. That's what we've been waiting for.

The work of recovery has barely just begun and the realities of what is to come in the days and months to follow will be unbearably difficult -- and costly.

But for now, there is a surprising sense of hopefulness as political leaders are moving beyond partisan politics in a genuine effort to solve problems and meet the needs of people who are desperate for help. This is real leadership.

There are some important observations to be made here regarding Barack Obama. Most importantly, his transcendence of partisan politics at a time of national crisis was genuine. He reached out with equal resolve to governors from both parties, all of them invited to call him, directly, if they needed things from the federal government, but found the agencies insufficiently responsive or timely. He publicly ordered FEMA -- the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- to eliminate any bureaucracy or red-tape in getting help where it's needed.

Here's something else that many may not appreciate. In the 1990s, under Bill Clinton, the legendary James Lee Witt made FEMA a world-class operation. But all of that dramatically changed during the Bush administration. FEMA's disgraceful performance during and after Hurricane Katrina damaged morale inside the agency -- and undermined its reputation nationally and internationally.

So shortly after his election in 2008, Barack Obama set out to restore FEMA to its former stature as a disaster planning and response enterprise second to none. The search for a new director was intense and focused, with the president -- and Congress -- insisting on having an experienced disaster manager run the agency.

That search turned up the decidedly non-flamboyant, soft-spoken, but highly competent Craig Fugate. Fugate came from a long and successful career managing Florida's emergency response programs.

He moved quickly to get FEMA back on its feet. And it worked. The agency has rebuilt its workforce and regained its reputation as a highly competent, deeply respected partner working closely with other federal agencies, as well as with relevant state and municipal counterparts.

For this, President Obama deserves much credit. Rebuilding FEMA has been quiet, inside work. But watching the president this week reminds us that transcending partisanship and solving problems are the qualities that define leadership in a way that should be meaningful to all Americans.

Just how Hurricane Sandy will affect the outcome of Tuesday's election remains to be seen. In the meantime, the sitting president deserves a major thank you from all of us.