WASHINGTON — It may look to America like President Barack Obama is off the campaign trail. He's really not.

By commanding the response to a ferocious October storm a week before the election, Obama is employing a major political advantage in the race to be president.

He is the president.

Clearly, Obama's imperative to act transcends the election. The wrath of the massive storm Sandy is real. At a time of death and danger, any president is expected to lead for the people of every state, battleground or otherwise.

Yet in a political sense – and politics are absolutely part of this – Obama has a remarkable last-minute chance to campaign for his job just by doing his job.

Republican nominee Mitt Romney can load canned food onto donation trucks; Obama can order aid and assets to the entire Northeastern corridor.

Labeled by Romney as the big government guy, Obama is the one slashing red tape and telling governors to call him directly if they hit a single bureaucratic snag.

The presidential race is tied or close to it in all the states that matter, so Obama is taking on risks, too, by halting days of official campaign events as Romney resumes them.

Every rally Obama scraps means one less chance to implore people to vote early, as many states allow, or to vote at all. The storm is consuming attention for much of the East Coast, particularly in New York and New Jersey, but has far less resonance in the key states where the weather is fine.

And, of course, Obama can blow it.

Each major storm still lives in the harrowing legacy of Hurricane Katrina, which is why Obama has offered declarations like "There are no unmet needs."

Advisers to Obama said that in a data-driven campaign, the storm emerged as an unpredictable factor – and, therefore, so is how voters will respond to Obama's moves.

The politics of Obama's storm response are not overt. The point is to go the other direction and just be presidential.

So gone, for three days and counting, are the rallies in which Obama expressly asks people to re-elect him. Instead, voters see images of Obama in charge in the Situation Room, or addressing the country from the White House briefing room, or assuring the hurting while visiting the American Red Cross that "America is with you."

To the independent and undecided voters sick of the mess in Washington, Obama appears bipartisan and positively unconcerned about his own political fate.

His best friend is suddenly a prominent Romney supporter, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was touring storm damage with the president on Wednesday.

"The president has been all over this, and he deserves great credit," Christie, a Republican, gushed in a TV interview. By contrast, when Christie was asked whether Romney was coming to help, he said, "I have no idea, nor am I the least bit concerned or interested."

The White House, not the re-election campaign, drove the decision on Obama would shift back from a heavy governing role to traditional campaigning. Either way, members of the tight inner circle of both operations appear plenty content with the position Obama commands so far this week.

"The president is focused on exactly what the American people elected him to do, which is manage the country in the event of crisis," campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

It is the kind of statement that leaves Romney little counter, because there is no good political move in undermining American unity.

On the flipside, even with a priority on safety and recovery for storm victims, the Obama camp's underplaying of all things political seems a mighty stretch.

On Tuesday, one week from Election Day, Vice President Joe Biden went so far as to say, "Honest to God, I don't think anyone's thought about that."

Romney, without government authority but with a real shot of unseating the president, has been mindful of his tone, too.

"We are looking for all the help we can get for all the families that need," Romney said in an Ohio gym. He stood in front of a neatly lined table of toothpaste, diapers and blankets. His donate-for-storm-relief event, though, welcomed supporters with a campaign video declaring how he would make America strong again.

More than one Obama adviser suggested Romney was blurring precisely the line that the president would never dare cross.

"Soon enough we'll need to get back to work on the most important campaign of our lifetime," campaign manager Jim Messina said in an email. It looked like so many of the fundraising appeals he has sent out for Obama's re-election bid. In this one, he was lobbying people to donate to the American Red Cross.

And soon enough, indeed, Obama was going back to official campaigning. Aides confirmed he would be blitzing through Wisconsin, Nevada and Colorado on Thursday.

Meanwhile, he was still monitoring the storm.

And voters were monitoring him, not campaigning, even as he is.


EDITOR'S NOTE – Ben Feller has covered the presidencies of Barack Obama and George W. Bush.


Follow Ben Feller on Twitter at www.twitter.com/BenFellerDC

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  • President Barack Obama

    In a hastily organized press briefing at the White House, Obama said Monday that his race with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is the furthest thing from his mind as the East Coast braces for what could be its worst storm in history. "I am not worried at this point about the impact on the election. I am worried about the impact on families. I am worried about the impact on our first responders," he said. "The election will take care of itself next week." ... He also sent out a campaign email on Monday urging supporters to heed advice from local authorities and extending an early thank you to first responders. “Michelle and I are keeping everyone in the affected areas in our thoughts and prayers. Be safe,” reads the email, signed by Obama. -- <em><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/29/hurricane-sandy-obama_n_2042403.html?1351610452">HuffPost's Jennifer Bendery and Lynne Peeples </a></em>

  • Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney

    Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney took a moment in an overflow room ahead of a campaign rally Monday to express his concern for those in the path of Hurricane Sandy and encourage the people of Ohio to do what they could to help those out east. “I want to mention that our hearts and prayers are with all the people in the storm's path," he said in Avon Lake, Ohio. "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." He went on to encourage those who can afford it to make a donation to the Red Cross. "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," he said. Romney concluded the rally by echoing his comments from the overflow room. "This looks like another time we all need to come together," he said. -- <em><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/29/mitt-romney-hurricane-sandy_n_2039620.html?1351610466">HuffPost's Elise Foley</a></em>

  • New Jersey Governor Chris Christie

    New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) continued his praise of President Barack Obama's work responding to Hurricane Sandy, using a press briefing Monday evening to note that he appreciated the "leadership" Obama was showing in the emergency. Christie, a prominent surrogate for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, said that he and Obama had a private phone conversation on Monday to discuss how the federal government could help New Jersey. He said that Obama told Christie that he could call him directly over the next 48 hours if the state government had issues with federal response to the hurricane in New Jersey. “I appreciate that type of leadership," Christie said of Obama. The Republican governor said most of the call centered on Obama's concern for New Jersey and then he continued to heap praise on the president, saying Obama's work has been "proactive." Christie shortened a campaign trip for Romney to return to New Jersey to handle the storm response. Christie started his praise of Obama during press briefings on Sunday, when he said "appreciated" Obama's outreach to him and the governors of other states being impacted by Hurricane Sandy. During a press briefing on Monday afternoon, Christie described another call he had with Obama and said that the president and his aides have been working to benefit New Jersey. “We appreciate the president’s efforts in that regard," Christie said earlier Monday. "He and his staff worked tremendously hard.” -- <em><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/29/chris-christie-sandy-obama_n_2041673.html">HuffPost's John Celock</a></em>

  • New York Governor Andrew Cuomo

  • Newark Mayor Cory Booker

  • Former Vice President Al Gore

    This week, our nation has anxiously watched as Hurricane Sandy lashed the East Coast and caused widespread damage--affecting millions. Now more than ever, our neighbors need our help. Please consider donating or volunteering for your local aid organizations. The images of Sandy’s flooding brought back memories of a similar--albeit smaller scale-- event in Nashville just two years ago. There, unprecedented rainfall caused widespread flooding, wreaking havoc and submerging sections of my hometown. For me, the Nashville flood was a milestone. For many, Hurricane Sandy may prove to be a similar event: a time when the climate crisis—which is often sequestered to the far reaches of our everyday awareness became a reality. While the storm that drenched Nashville was not a tropical cyclone like Hurricane Sandy, both storms were strengthened by the climate crisis. Scientists tell us that by continually dumping 90 million tons of global warming pollution into the atmosphere every single day, we are altering the environment in which all storms develop. As the oceans and atmosphere continue to warm, storms are becoming more energetic and powerful. Hurricane Sandy, and the Nashville flood, were reminders of just that. Other climate-related catastrophes around the world have carried the same message to hundreds of millions. Sandy was also affected by other symptoms of the climate crisis. As the hurricane approached the East Coast, it gathered strength from abnormally warm coastal waters. At the same time, Sandy's storm surge was worsened by a century of sea level rise. Scientists tell us that if we do not reduce our emissions, these problems will only grow worse. Hurricane Sandy is a disturbing sign of things to come. We must heed this warning and act quickly to solve the climate crisis. Dirty energy makes dirty weather.

  • Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)

  • House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)

    "Our thoughts and prayers rest with the families, friends, and loved ones of all those who have lost their lives in the course of Hurricane Sandy, and our hearts go out to the millions of Americans waking up to destruction and devastation in their homes and communities today. "We are all grateful to the rescue workers and first responders working around-the-clock to save lives, restore power, and deal with the immediate aftermath of the storm. Federal, state, and local authorities have worked hand-in-hand to prepare for and respond to this natural disaster, and we will continue to do so as Americans begin to take stock of the damage, recover, and rebuild. "All Members of Congress stand ready to offer our aid and assistance to communities affected by Hurricane Sandy. As we have done in the past, the American people will stand united to confront the impact of this storm and start the work of recovery."

  • Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.)

  • Sen. David Vitter (R-La.)

  • Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)

  • Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.)

  • Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.)

  • Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.)

  • Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.)

  • Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.)

  • Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.)

  • Rep. Steve Austria (R-Ohio)

  • Former Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.)

  • Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.)

    “Hurricane Sandy hit New York and the Northeast hard last night and will complicate life in our region for the coming days. I am astounded at what I have seen in my own congressional district: flooding throughout Coney Island, Battery Park City, and other areas; widespread power outages; felled trees everywhere you look; and some very tragic fatalities. I am grateful to our local responders and laborers, who are doing a tremendous job on emergency response. And, through the President’s declaration of New York as a major disaster area, we will be able to immediately allocate FEMA funds to begin to repair the billions of dollars in damage locally and bring relief to New Yorkers whose lives have been turned upside down.”