Storm looms larger for President Obama

The stakes are higher for President Obama than for his Republican opponent Mitt Romney as Hurricane Sandy pounds the eastern United States.

Obama could reap big electoral benefits if he takes command of the situation and if the federal government's response to the massive storm is competent.

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But it will be Obama who gets the blame if anything goes badly wrong with that response or if it takes longer than expected for a swathe of the nation to get back on its feet.

It is a tantalizing but perilous situation for a president locked into a race that both sides agree is extremely close.

On Monday, both campaigns wrestled with an appropriate response to a storm that had suddenly supplanted all else, just eight days before Election Day. Obama and Romney each canceled events on Monday and Tuesday. (Late Monday evening, the Romney campaign announced that the GOP nominee would, after all, participate in what was billed as a "storm relief event" in Kettering, Ohio, on Tuesday morning.)

Obama had flown to Florida on Sunday evening in order to take part in a Monday morning event with former President Clinton. Instead, he returned to Washington, where he met with advisers in the Situation Room and addressed the media in the White House briefing room.

“I’m not worried about the impact on the election,” he said, in response to a reporter’s question. “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.”

The GOP nominee’s communications director, Gail Gitcho, said Romney was canceling events “out of sensitivity” for Americans affected. She added: “Gov. Romney believes this is a time for the nation and its leaders to come together to focus on those Americans who are in harm’s way.”

Romney’s main problem is that he could be reduced to cameo appearances in the national drama that is currently playing out. For Obama, the challenge is precisely the opposite: he is the central character in a story that will unfold in ways that neither he nor anyone else can predict.

“The president is in a better position to benefit from this because he is actually the president and Romney does not have an official role in government,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “But what if things go really bad? What if FEMA seems not up to the task? That reflects badly on the president.”

Political veterans know only too well just how volatile these matters can be — and how they can affect public opinion.

President George W. Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina was widely regarded as so cavalier that his approval ratings suffered a decline from which they never recovered.

More than a decade earlier, President George H.W. Bush was criticized for being slow to send federal troops and other relief to Florida after it had been devastated by Hurricane Andrew in late August 1992.

George Stephanopoulos, the deputy campaign manager for Bush’s challenger Bill Clinton, told The New York Times back then that Bush’s response seemed “to reinforce the impression that he’s more skilled at addressing foreign crises than domestic crises ... He doesn’t seem to understand the depth of the problem.”

Looking back at those events, another Clinton veteran, Paul Begala, told The Hill on Monday:

“President Bush carried Florida in 1992. Still, the sense that the Bush Administration mishandled the response to Andrew was real. President Clinton focused on rebuilding Florida: he kept a photo of the devastation of Homestead on the wall in the White House. President Clinton turned FEMA around from a basket-case to a showcase, and carried Florida in 1996.”

Republicans, many of whom seem on edge about the storm’s potential political impact, note that there is one obvious downside for Obama. Sandy will leave a lot of unhappy people in her wake — some of them living in eastern swing states.

“If people are experiencing flooding or lack of power, they may associate problems in their local area with the president’s inability to fix them,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean.

“Unless you give everyone everything that they want — which might not be appropriate or possible — you open yourself to some criticism,” added another GOP consultant, Matt Mackowiak.

But even Mackowiak acknowledged that the current circumstances present Obama with an opportunity to leverage the political advantages of incumbency. He drew a contrast between the presidential debates and Hurricane Sandy: whereas the former allowed Romney to close some of the gap in stature that an incumbent president perennially enjoys, a natural disaster could open the chasm up once again.

“Debates help the challenger by virtue of him being on the same stage,” Mackowiak said. “But the job of being president separates the two people, and this does give [Obama] some space from his challenger. It’s very hard for a challenger at a time like this: You’d like to be campaigning but you can’t.”

On a conference call with reporters Monday morning, the Obama campaign’s senior strategist, David Axelrod, noted that “We are obviously going to lose a bunch of campaign time but that’s as it has to be. For us, it’s not a matter of optics, it’s a matter of responsibility.”

If Obama discharges those responsibilities well over the next few days, he could pave his way to reelection. But if he falls short, the path in the opposite direction is just as clear.