Hurricane Sandy is a crisis and opportunity for Obama, Romney

This NOAA satellite image shows Hurricane Sandy at 11:15 a.m. EDT Monday.
(Weather Underground / Associated Press Photos)

The giant storm that will power through the East Coast on Monday night and into the week presents both a crisis and an opportunity for the two men entering the last week of their fight for the White House.

President Obama canceled an appearance Monday in Orlando with former President Bill Clinton in order to return to Washington to monitor the U.S. government’s response to Hurricane Sandy. His Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, announced Monday that he would cancel events Monday night and Tuesday. Those were just the latest in a series of cancellations by Obama and Romney.

As the sitting president with authority over the government’s storm response, Obama sits in a stronger position when it comes to reacting to the 1,000-mile-wide storm, potentially the largest ever to strike the U.S. He’s expected to oversee the federal government’s relief efforts — a duty that has become far more than an afterthought ever since Hurricane Katrina.

PHOTOS: Hurricane Sandy

The slow response to the deadly 2005 disaster in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast tainted the reputation of President George W. Bush, whose administration appeared inattentive and ineffectual.

Sandy’s course and duration remain not precisely known, but it’s likely that Obama will be visiting neighborhoods damaged by the storm by the weekend, just days before the Nov. 6 election.
A politician can always get in trouble if they appear to be politicizing tragic events. But a president can hardly be expected to sit on the sidelines in what will probably be one of the biggest natural disasters of his tenure.

The media has generally judged President Obama to be in good form in moments when compassion is required. Sen. John McCain(R-Ariz.), who lost to Obama four years ago, said that he thinks the hurricane presents an opportunity for Obama to demonstrate presidential leadership in the crucial hours before the vote.

Romney also will have to make some sort of response to Hurricane Sandy, though his lack of official duties in the damage zone will make his exact activities less obvious.

Expect Romney to lend support and encouragement at volunteer centers or charities, but only once his campaign receives assurances it won’t interrupt emergency relief efforts.The last thing a politician wants in such a setting is to appear to get in the way of rescue workers.

As he has on several other issues, Romney may also be asked to explain a sharply conservative opinion from the primary season — that the work of the Federal Emergency Management Agency(FEMA) would be better handled by the states.

During a June 2011 Republican primary debate, CNN’s John King asked Romney whether disaster relief should be handled by the states. “Absolutely,” Romney said. “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. And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.”

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Romney went on to explain that debt reduction was a key motivator in driving his thoughts about FEMA.

Voters tend to like such government reductions in theory, but not so much when they need help. It’s unlikely that the majority of voters would warm to an anti-FEMA argument in the coming days, when they will be looking to FEMA to rebuild their lives.

Several years and some $2 billion have gone into an election that has blotted out many other news events. But this storm will not be pushed off the top of the agenda. Both candidates appear ready to heed that truth, even if it means a somewhat muted conclusion to loud and contentious campaign.

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