The enormity of last week’s super-storm is just beginning to sink into political consciousness. Hurricane Sandy should transform what Americans expect from their government, and give the party of government activism new force.
As soon as the election is behind us, the country faces a major struggle over what the super-storm portends and requires. But that struggle will be as much within the Democratic Party as between Democrats and the right, because of the deadweight of austerity politics.
I. The Three Faces of Conservatism.
In this political season, progressives are actually battling three forms of conservatism — and two of them have made deep inroads in the Democratic Party, especially the presidential party.
But this is not the only brand. The second face is Wall Street Conservatism.
Wall Street conservatism also overlaps the third face of the right — Austerity Conservatism.
If Obama wins and he strikes a grand budget bargain with the Republicans, it will paralyze the government’s ability to respond to the worst continuing disaster since al-Qaeda’s attacks of 9/11.
II. Sandy Changes Everything — Maybe
The new normal of rising waters and other consequences of intensifying climate change has arrived a generation ahead of schedule. As Americans grasp what has occurred and the likelihood of more intense storm surges in coming years, it will become clear that we need massive public investments to keep our coastlines above water.
The money needed will easily reach into the trillions of dollars. And for now, just about nothing is on the books. FEMA’s entire budget for this fiscal year is $12.5 billion, and the immediate damage of the storm is $50 billion. The infrastructure spending of the 2009 Recovery Act is nearly used up.
If this were a military threat, we’d simply find the money, through a combination of bonds and surtaxes on the wealthy. After the attacks of 9/11, military spending rose by between two and five trillion dollars, depending on what you count.
III. Obama’s Challenge — and Ours
Once the election is behind us, a re-elected Obama can proceed to negotiate the grand budget deal as if nothing had happened. Or he can give a major address pointing out that super-storm Sandy changes everything; that all prior bets are off.
If the fix is in for a budget deal that precludes government’s ability to spend serious money on climate remediation, flood protection, and a shift to a non-carbon economy, the United States of America is just plain screwed.
Few presidents get a do over. Let’s see whether Obama grasps the challenge and the possibilities.
Check out this entire article on Huffington Post
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. His latest book is A Presidency in Peril.