With the election just over a week away, and early voting in full swing, Hurricane Sandy has hugely disrupted both Obama and Romney’s campaign schedules. Although this disaster is not good news to anyone, let alone the campaigns, if Obama reacts to this chain of events well he could potentially give himself a boost in the eyes of coveted undecided voters.
The president’s choice to return to Washington and the trappings of the White House to monitor Hurricane Sandy, instead of attending several campaign events, underscores his presidential authority and leadership. By not letting his campaigning overshadow his job to safeguard the American people, he also has given himself a chance to shore up his campaign by appearing as a competent and compassionate president. Despite Romney's talk of leadership, he has no opportunity like this to demonstrate it; it is a valuable opportunity for Obama. Of course, the president will have to play his cards right in order to reap this full benefit without being overly criticized for using Sandy as a photo-op. As well, he and FEMA must handle the relief effort smoothly, or else he risks the same effect on his popularity that Hurricane Katrina had on Bush’s.
Historically, the president has done better than Romney in situations requiring empathy and response to tragedy; take, for example, the embassy attack in Libya, which demonstrated that Romney does not always have this knack. The hurricane will play to Obama’s strengths in this respect. On Monday he told reporters, “I’m not worried, at this point, about the impact on the election, I’m worried about the impact on families. I’m worried about the impact on our first responders. I’m worried about the impact on our economy and on transportation. The election will take care of itself next week.” Additionally, Obama is expected to visit areas affected by the storm, just days before the election.
Both campaigns, for now, are tasked with not politicizing the disaster, while still running a campaign. Attack ads are even less palatable when people are suffering – yet the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy opens a very tempting window for the Obama campaign. FEMA is swinging into action right now, aiding hurricane relief up and down the eastern seaboard. Obama’s campaign could use this opportunity for calling out Romney on his statement in the primary campaign that he wants to gut FEMA, handing disaster relief over to the states and even the private sector in an effort to reduce the deficit. Certainly the blogosphere (especially its liberal bits) is wasting no time in seizing this opportunity.
With the government’s role in disaster relief so obvious and positive right now, the New Yorker notes, “It may be interesting to see how anti-government tones may be modulated.” Romney may experience yet another change of heart – this time about FEMA; while his deficit reduction ideas resonated with many voters in theory, in practice most voters are opposed to cuts to government aid, especially aid as helpful as FEMA. If the Obama campaign can succeed in casting Romney as the anti-FEMA candidate before Romney can re-cast these statements, it could help Obama going into Election Day.
Obama needs to act with the grave moral authority of the President of the United States in response to a crisis, when his campaign might prefer to stay on the attack. If he criticizes Romney and comes off as politicizing a disaster, it will almost certainly backfire. His job is an immense balancing act, but if he pulls it off it just might help keep him in the Oval Office for four more years.