As the East Coast begins to deal with the aftereffects of Hurricane Sandy, President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney face a dilemma: how to run for office without appearing insensitive to the damage caused by the superstorm.
Had Sandy hit back in August, the decision would be simple: suspend the campaign for a few days, maybe do some light fundraising, pull attack ads off the air. But with just one week until election day, the two presidential campaigns can’t afford to simply close up shop. It may seem gauche to worry about campaigning, given the damage done to the mid-Atlantic states, but with the race very tight, the next week could well determine who will be president for the next four years.
Sandy represents a potential game-changer for both campaigns. Its impact may well be felt, not just by those in the affected areas, but on the politics of the next four years.
For Obama, a Test of Leadership
Barack Obama will face a significant test over the next week. Can his administration effectively manage the post-hurricane clean-up? Can it help get power restored, transit up and running? Can it get water and food to those that need it, get hospitals that had to close due to power outages back up and running? In short, can FEMA manage this crisis effectively?
It can be argued that disasters like Sandy are precisely why we have a federal government. With damage in New Jersey and New York that will certainly run into the tens of billions of dollars, it takes the resources of the whole country, working together, to help get the affected region back on its feet.
The immediate impact of Sandy on polling will be unclear; there is some evidence that people vote more conservatively during bad weather, but there’s also likely to be a short-term rally ’round the flag effect benefiting the administration. If the recovery effort goes reasonably smoothly, it’s likely Sandy will prove a net positive for the president.
The danger for Obama is that the recovery effort does not go smoothly. The lackluster initial response to Hurricane Katrina caused serious damage to the approval ratings for President George W. Bush, damage that he couldn’t repair during his time in office. Had Katrina happened in October of 2004, rather than August of 2005, it’s likely that John Kerry would have won the election.
Obama’s political fortunes thus perfectly align with his duties as president. For Obama, nothing is more important than making sure recovery efforts come of without a hitch. So far, Obama has received plaudits for his response. New Jersey Gov. and Romney surrogate Chris Christie has so far praised Obama, saying, “The cooperation has been great with FEMA here on the ground and the cooperation from the president of the United States has been outstanding. He deserves great credit.” Still, that praise could quickly turn if the Obama administration mismanages the recovery.
Image Credit: New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority
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