Hurricane Sandy gives Barack Obama the chance to look presidential and keep challenger Mitt Romney off his message in the final days of the U.S. election campaign. But if this crisis presents Mr. Obama with an opportunity, it’s one that’s fraught with peril.
The President gains the chance to look commanding while dispatching the extensive resources of the federal government. Indeed, as Americans look to their government for assistance, the event itself feeds his narrative about why the United States needs a muscular, effective federal government.
Presidents commonly gain at least temporary popularity from crises, as Americans rally around him. But Americans must perceive Mr. Obama to be successful in these efforts, and not officious or unconnected to the travails of ordinary Americans recovering from the storm’s effects.
The bungled response to Hurricane Katrina cost George W. Bush dearly, an effect magnified when Americans saw the president looking down on his distressed people from Air Force One in a botched attempt to show interest and compassion for the people of New Orleans.
Mr. Romney wants to continue to hammer home his economic message in the final days of the campaign. But the news has turned to all Sandy, all the time. Instead of focusing on the slow pace of the U.S. economic recovery, Mr. Romney may have to explain why he advocated dismantling the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the Republican primaries.
At the same time, Democrats worry that the storm will depress early voting (cancelled in several states on Monday) in swing states such as Ohio and Virginia. The most heavily Democratic parts of Virginia are closest to Washington, and the most likely to experience power outages during the storm.
The effects of the storm in these areas, however, remain an unknown. Many residents have already voted in anticipation of the hurricane – early voting is way up this year, around the country. Others will wait until the storm moves on.
Mr. Obama also should thank his stars for the Electoral College. The Northeast is a Democratic stronghold, which will help insulate him from the impact of a weather-related drop in turnout. It’s a nice buffer in an election where most expect the national popular vote to be very close.
David Lublin is a professor of government in the School of Public Affairs at American University.