President Obama says he has not decided whether to restore FEMA to a stand-alone department, according to reports in New Orleans Time-Picayune and other Gulf Coast media.
During the campaign the Obama position on FEMA evolved. Prior to Labor Day the campaign communicated that FEMA would be “carefully” and “thoughtfully” reorganized outside DHS. How this would be done and when it would be done was explicitly left for more deliberate planning after the election.
In February 2008 candidate Obama, speaking in New Orleans, said, “The director of FEMA will report to me. He or she will have the highest qualifications in emergency management. And I won’t just tell you that I’ll insulate that office from politics – I’ll guarantee it, by giving my FEMA director a fixed term like the director of the Federal Reserve. I don’t want FEMA to be thinking for one minute about the politics of a crisis. I want FEMA to do its job, which is protecting the American people – not protecting a President’s politics. And as soon as we take office, my FEMA director will work with emergency management officials in all fifty states to create a National Response Plan. Because we need to know – before disaster comes – who will be in charge; and how the federal, state and local governments will work together to respond.”
In a mid-August story reporter Roxana Tiron was very clear on what she heard, “Obama wants to take FEMA out of DHS and make it a free-standing agency, the way it was until DHS was created. ‘Obama will professionalize and depoliticize the appointment of FEMA’s director,’ says Moira Mack, Obama’s campaign spokeswoman. ‘Like the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the FEMA director will have a fixed term of office to insulate him or her from politics.’ The FEMA director would report directly to the president, serve a six-year term and would have professional emergency management experience, she adds.”
I cannot find a direct quote from candidate Obama on the specific issue of FEMA in-or-out. But most people heard it would be out. It was not — and is not — a big issue for me. But I prefer FEMA stay inside DHS. Even though what I heard did not fit my own preference, I heard it would be spun-out.
This apparent campaign position shifted in late August or early September. I have wondered if it had something to do with Hurricane Gustav. Maybe this was only a coincidence of timing. But certainly the prospect of a simultaneous double-punch from Gustav and Hanna kept many a campaign-staffer glued to the National Hurricane Center during the last week in August.
As the language shifted I tried to determine what was happening. One senior campaign aide told me something to the effect of, “the closer we get to reality the more we are listening to strong arguments on each side.” I agree there are strong arguments on each side. Certainly there are other critical decisions demanding careful and thoughtful attention. But a decision needs to be made in order to remove the distraction of a non-decision off the FEMA table.