From a political perspective, Hurricane Sandy is coming ashore as a wash.
It freezes an essentially tied presidential race. And while it gave President Obama a chance to show his abilities as commander in chief just as voters are deciding whether to give him a second term, it also gave Mitt Romney an unfettered opportunity to campaign in swing states that have been vital to his surge in recent weeks—before appearing magnanimous by announcing he was curtailing his efforts tonight and Tuesday in an expression of national unity.
The true test comes in the storm’s aftermath.
Hurricane Katrina wasn’t a problem for President George W. Bush until it was over, New Orleans residents were stranded on their roofs, and he was assuring FEMA Director Michael Brown that he was doing “a heck of a job.”
That helps explain why the president turned around this morning from a planned campaign appearance in Orlando and hightailed it out of the battleground state of Florida to get back to the White House to oversee his administration’s response.
Many of the debates in a political campaign can seem detached from the average person’s daily life, arguments over a $16 trillion national debt or tax hikes for people making over $250,000 far removed from the demands of ferrying kids to soccer games or angling for a promotion at work.
But when the lights go out, when the house gets cold, and when the pace of recovery stretches inordinately long, people look for someone to blame—and that someone collectively moves from their local selectman on up to the president of the United States.
On Sunday, Obama sought to convey his engagement by visiting FEMA headquarters in Washington. He repeated it again today during a late-morning appearance in the White House Briefing Room.
“The good news is, is that the governors and local officials, I think, have had a few days of preparation. There’s been extraordinarily close coordination between state, federal, and local governments. And so we’re confident that the assets are pre-positioned for an effective response in the aftermath of the storm,” the president said.
Asked directly about the storm’s impact on election, Obama replied: “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 the impact on our first responders. I’m worried about the impact on our economy and on transportation.”
He added: “The election will take care of itself next week. Right now, our number-one 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 water, the shelter that they need in case of emergency, and that we respond as quickly as possible to get the economy back on track.”
On Sunday, the president made what seems, in retrospect, an ill-considered decision to proceed to Florida for a planned appearance with former President Bill Clinton in a state where Romney has opened up a lead. This morning, he reconsidered and returned back to Washington.
Conditions had already gotten so bad that the pilots aboard the charter plane scheduled to return the Obama press corps back to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland decided against trailing Air Force One.
The president had previously skipped out of campaign stops with Clinton scheduled for later in the day in Ohio, asking Vice President Joe Biden to step in his place to avoid cancelling rallies in a pivotal electoral state.
“The president continues to receive regular updates on the storm, and continues to direct his team to make sure all available resources are brought to bear to support state and local partners,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a statement Sunday night announcing the changes.
Today, the White House also announced that Obama would not travel to Wisconsin on Tuesday as scheduled so he can “closely monitor the impact of and response to Hurricane Sandy.”
Romney, meanwhile, cancelled planned stops in Virginia on Sunday, forged ahead with scheduled stops today safely away from the storm in Ohio, Iowa, and Wisconsin, but switched out a planned visit to Milford, N.H., on Tuesday to instead campaign in Ohio and Iowa.
This morning, his campaign staff changed plans again, announcing he would halt campaigning tonight and stay off the trail tomorrow.
“Governor 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,” campaign Communications Director Gail Gitcho said in a statement.
The storm has the potential to be a momentum-breaker for Romney’s campaign, since it will consume a huge swath of media bandwith just as he is making his closing argument to voters. But he also stands to benefit from conveying empathy to the victims as well as any misstep made by Obama.
His campaign announced that in North Carolina, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, it was collecting storm-relief supplies. “In Virginia, we are loading storm-relief supplies onto the Romney bus to be delivered,” a statement said.
In another statement announcing the cancellation of Ann Romney’s planned stops in Derry and Manchester, N.H., today, his staff said, “The Romney campaign’s bus will be used for relief efforts throughout the East Coast.”
Ann Romney was redeployed to Michigan, her homestate and another key presidential battleground.
The Romney campaign also halted fund-raising e-mails in states affected by the hurricane, and the Romneys sent an e-mail encouraging donations to the Red Cross.
“For safety’s sake, as you and your family prepare for the storm, please be sure to bring any yard signs inside. In high winds they can be dangerous, and cause damage to homes and property,” their joint statement added.
Then, adopting a presidential tone, Romney added: “I’m never prouder of America than when I see how we pull together in a crisis. There’s nothing that we can’t handle when we stand together.”
On the local level, Governor Deval Patrick has been aggressive since late last week about convening conference calls and delivering media briefings, both in the formality of the State House press conference room and at the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency bunker in Framingham.
After being forced to respond to the Annie Dookhan drug testing case and the New England Compounding Center meningitis case, the governor has been proactive in the face of the storm.
He not only declared a state of emergency on Saturday, more than two days before Hurricane Sandy’s full fury was expected, but he also preemptively requested a federal disaster declaration from the president, a personal friend.
On Sunday, Obama granted one to Massachusetts and all the other states in the storm’s path.
The candidates in the hotly contested Massachusetts US Senate race face the same freeze as their presidential counterparts, with a couple unique factors.
Senator Scott Brown and his Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren, were set to hold their fourth and final debate in Boston on Tuesday—just at the storm’s projected peak—before Brown announced this afternoon that he was pulling out.
“It is simply not appropriate to go forward with a political debate when a disaster strikes,” said campaign spokesman Colin Reed. “The focus for all of us before, during, and after the storm needs to be on emergency response and disaster relief, not campaigns and politics.”
Recent polls have shown Brown trailing in the race, making a final debate, before a potentially large television audience, important for him. He quipped Sunday about being willing to drive Warren to the TV studio in his famed green pickup truck, before changing course today.
In his statement, Reed noted the cancelled events by Obama and Romney, as well as the cancellation of a debate in Maine on Tuesday.
If you believe the polls, Warren could have benefitted from skipping the debate and avoiding any potential gaffe that could emanate from it, but she was the candidate who clamored for even more debates with Brown earlier this year.
“It’s premature to speculate on the debate. Obviously the first priority needs to be public safety,” a spokesman said when the issue first cropped up last Thursday.
Brown has tried to convey engagement on an issue more typically assigned to the state’s executive branch, personally writing to the heads of the state utilities last Thursday and asking to see copies of their storm-response plans. Patrick had already been slated to receive them on Friday.
On Sunday during a campaign stop in Lowell, Brown said he and his wife, Gail Huff, were stopping on the way back to their home in Wrentham to stock up on storm supplies.
This morning, the couple sent out an e-mail, urging recipients to check on the well-being of their neighbors.
The senator also sent out a message via Twitter: “Please stay safe today,” he said, before adding a link to a website offering the state’s emergency information smartphone application.
The senator also visited the MEMA bunker for a personal storm briefing.
One potential wrinkle or opportunity for Brown?
Elements of the Maryland National Guard, to which he transferred earlier this year from Massachusetts, have been activated to help with storm-relief efforts in the mid-Atlantic states.
So far, Brown—a colonel and judge advocate general assigned to the Pentagon—has not been among the 250 Guard soldiers and airmen called to active duty.
Were he to be, admittedly unlikely right now, it would force him to leave the campaign trail. But it would also put him in his uniform, and allow him to reprise the act he said first inspired him to join the service.
That was the example of the Massachusetts National Guard helping stranded motorists and residents after another natural disaster, the Blizzard of ’78.