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Obama And Romney Respond To Sandy With Election (And Katrina) In Mind

President Obama walks toward the White House on Monday after returning to Washington to monitor the government response to Hurricane Sandy.
Jacquelyn Martin
President Obama walks toward the White House on Monday after returning to Washington to monitor the government response to Hurricane Sandy.

Thanks to Hurricane Sandy, the week before Election Day is certainly not turning out the way anyone expected, especially the presidential candidates.

President Obama and Mitt Romney found themselves ditching their schedules for the start of the week as they responded to exigencies created by the massive hurricane raking the U.S. Eastern Seaboard.

Both Obama and Romney canceled planned campaign stops in Virginia, one of the states in the path of Sandy. The president also departed Florida Tuesday morning before a scheduled rally to return to the White House to oversee the federal government's response to the massive storm, which could directly impact 60 million people, according to some estimates.

Romney, meanwhile, canceled a New Hampshire event scheduled for Monday, though other events in Ohio and Iowa stayed on the schedule. All public events for Tuesday were canceled, according to a campaign spokesperson.

And both campaigns, to greater or lesser degrees, devoted some of their resources to calling on their supporters to donate to disaster relief to those affected by the hurricane.

Obviously, practical and safety concerns were in play in many of the decisions by the campaigns to redo their schedules.

Mitt Romney at a campaign stop Monday in Avon Lake, Ohio.
Charles Dharapak / AP
Mitt Romney at a campaign stop Monday in Avon Lake, Ohio.

But both campaigns were also driven by post-Katrina rules of politics. That 2005 storm and the subsequent disaster of a flooded New Orleans compounded by an inept federal government response under President George W. Bush is indelibly imprinted on the American psyche.

When Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, Bush was actually making a swing out West, partly to do some campaign fundraising. That, and the shamefully inadequate response by a Federal Emergency Management Agency led by a political appointee lacking the requisite experience, became the epitome of how not to handle a natural disaster.

Thus Obama was back at the White House Monday afternoon, outlining for the nation the federal government's efforts to orchestrate the disaster response.

Though the president was forced to forgo the campaign trail, the storm's arrival gave him the opportunity to do something only a sitting president can do — show himself in command at the White House at a moment of national crisis and in a way sure to be depicted across the news media.

With the airwaves saturated with campaign ads, it was always possible that news images of the president performing one of his most important tasks might cut through the clutter of slick political messages.

For instance, it was likely many news outlets would be replaying Obama's response to a reporter's question at a White House briefing about whether he was concerned about the storm's impact on next week's election.

It was a question that gave Obama the chance to appear above politics, to reinforce that a president represents all the people, even those who didn't vote for him.

"I am not worried at this point about the impact on the election," Obama said. "I am worried about the impact on families. I'm worried about the impact on first responders. I'm worried about the impact on our economy and on transportation. The election will take care of itself next week. Right now our No. 1 priority is to make sure that we are saving lives, that our search and rescue teams are going to be in place. That people are going to get the food, the shelter, the water they need in case of emergency. And that we respond as quickly to get the economy back on track."

While Obama spoke from the White House press room, Romney had a far less unpresidential backdrop, a high school gym in Avon Lake, Ohio.

After emphasizing the importance of early voting, Romney talked of the hurricane and the importance of donations:

"I want to mention that our hearts and prayers are with all the people in the storm's path," said Romney. "Sandy is another devastating hurricane by all accounts, and a lot of people are going to be facing some real tough times as a result of Sandy's fury. And so if you have the capacity to make a donation to the American Red Cross, you can go online and do that. If there are other ways that you can help, please take advantage of them because there will be a lot of people that are going to be looking for help and the people in Ohio have big hearts, so we're expecting you to follow through and help out."

While the incumbent president could outline what the federal agencies at his command like FEMA are doing to contend with the storm and coordinate with governors in the affected states, Romney did what he could to mount his own vigorous response to the storm.

His campaign offices in Sandy-affected states would be collecting supplies to distribute to those with needs because of the storm. And in Virginia, some of those supplies would be delivered from one of Romney's campaign buses.

The use of the campaign bus and officers for his relief efforts underscored, however, the difficulty faced by a challenger running against an incumbent president. Something else that highlighted the difference: Obama was on the phone with both Democratic and Republican governors of affected states; Romney discussions with governors was limited to Republicans like New Jersey's Chris Christie and Virginia's Bob McDonnell.

Though Obama might not be out on the campaign trail Monday, his campaign wasn't leaving the field of political battle unoccupied. Vice President Biden was stumping in Ohio Monday with former President Bill Clinton. And Biden was scheduled to be in Sarasota, Fla., on Wednesday.

Besides Ohio, the former president was also expected to campaign on Obama's behalf later in the week in several other battleground states, including Minnesota, which has recently become a swing state by some counts as Romney has narrowed Obama's polling lead there; and Iowa, Colorado, Virginia, New Hampshire and Wisconsin.

Clinton is indisputably the strongest surrogate Obama could have rallying the Democratic base for him, at this point. So the president may not lose too much energy from his inability to be out on the campaign trail in coming days as he deals with the storm's aftermath.

While the campaigns rejiggered their schedules, the storm's impact on the general election was foremost in many minds, as the question by the reporter at Obama's briefing illustrated.

The answer to how much the storm would affect voters was unknowable Monday and likely to remain that way until the extent of the damage along the East Coast becomes clear. That is unlikely to happen any sooner than the end of the week.

What was clear was the effect that the storm already was having on the election. Early voting was suspended Monday in numerous jurisdictions in the hurricane's path.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.