Washington was under assault by torrential rains as President Obama stepped to a White House podium and briefed the nation on the progress of a deadly hurricane.
“The great thing about America is when we go through tough times like this, we all pull together,” Obama said Monday afternoon as the television cameras rolled. “We look out for our friends. We look out for our neighbors. And we set aside whatever issues we may have otherwise to make sure that we respond appropriately and with swiftness.”
The president was not campaigning—indeed, he had canceled an appearance in Orlando that morning and flown back to a nearly deserted capital—but in a way, he was.
He was auditioning for another four years as commander in chief by demonstrating that he had taken charge of the federal response and displaying compassion toward the victims of Hurricane Sandy.
That’s his job, of course. But he now has the chance to perform it under the unique spotlight of a national disaster that, fairly or unfairly, has left Mitt Romney with little running room in the final week of an extremely tight presidential campaign.
Romney canceled an event in Wisconsin on Monday and his schedule for Tuesday rather than push against the storm’s gale-force wins. He said he was acting “out of sensitivity for the millions of Americans in the path of Hurricane Sandy.”
That was the sensible course, because the hurricane’s impact goes well beyond shutting the candidates out of crucial Eastern swing states. Even if Romney had gone ahead and campaigned, how much attention would he have gotten with the media’s attention riveted on the monster storm? The truth is, he would have been blown off the screen.
It’s a no-win situation for a challenger who had been gaining ground in the polls before the storm struck.
The emergency situation might not produce a tsunami of votes for Obama, but it can’t hurt—especially if the feds are seen as mounting a strong response.
Even as the hurricane made landfall in New Jersey, a controversy bubbled up around Romney’s view of FEMA, the agency leading the Sandy relief efforts.
In a June 2011 debate, CNN’s John King told Romney that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was running out of money and asked about those who say “the states should take on more of this role.”
“Absolutely,” Romney responded. “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction.”
King asked: does that include disaster relief?
“We cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids,” Romney said. The clip is already making the rounds on cable news.
A spokeswoman said Monday that “Governor Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions.” They are in “the best position to aid affected individuals and communities, and to direct resources and assistance to where they are needed most. This includes help from the federal government and FEMA.”
Critics also noted that the House passed a budget—pushed by Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan—that contains $11 billion for community and regional development, which includes FEMA and disaster relief. Obama’s budget figure was $19 billion. People often oppose federal spending in the abstract until a crisis highlights the need for Washington’s involvement.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, praises the response by Obama’s FEMA. But the president obviously doesn’t want to be seen as exploiting an emergency for political reasons.
Asked Monday about the effect on the campaign, Obama said: “I am not worried at this point about the impact on the election. I’m worried about the impact on families, and I’m worried about our first responders … The election will take care of itself next week. Right now, our No. 1 priority is to make sure that we are saving lives.”
But this is one of these situations where good governance is good politics. And with just seven days to go, Obama may have been given a rare chance to practice both.