WASHINGTON -- The last thing President Barack Obama wants is to screw up his response to a storm as massive and devastating as Hurricane Sandy, particularly a week before voters decide if they want him around for another four years. So, he's doing what any good president -- and candidate -- should do: ditching the campaign trail and owning the storm.
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."
Obama's remarks came right after he left a Situation Room briefing on Hurricane Sandy, and right after he canceled a morning rally in Florida to come back to Washington to deal with storm preparations. He was supposed to head to Ohio later in the day for another campaign event, but he canceled that, too. Instead, he sent Vice President Joe Biden, who told the crowd that Obama’s absence was a case of him putting the storm ahead of politics.
"He's doing the job a president should be doing,” Biden said.
To be sure, bad weather conditions are impacting everyone’s campaigning. Biden canceled events in Ohio on Tuesday and in Pennsylvania on Thursday. Romney and his vice presidential running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), nixed events on Monday night and Tuesday “out of sensitivity for the millions of Americans in the path of Hurricane Sandy,” according to Gail Gitcho, Romney’s communications director. Their campaign also plans to mobilize campaign staff to collect donations for victims and scale back its criticism of Obama “to avoid the perception that Romney was putting politics ahead of public safety.”
But being the commander in chief has its perks. When it comes to showcasing one’s leadership, looking presidential in the midst of a natural disaster can go further than any campaign appearance.
In the days and hours ahead of the storm, Obama signed a batch of emergency disaster declarations for states in Sandy’s path: Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York, Maryland and Delaware, as well as the District of Columbia. The move drew praise from politicians in those states, including some who put aside their campaigning for Romney to give Obama credit for helping out in advance of expected destruction.
“I appreciated the president’s outreach today in making sure that we know he’s watching this and is concerned about the health and welfare and safety of the people of the state of New Jersey,” Republican Gov. Chris Christie said Sunday. “He advised me to call him at any time that things were not going well.”
Obama has also been meeting with FEMA officials and cabinet secretaries, and speaking by phone with governors and mayors whose areas could be affected by the storm. The White House has provided readouts -- and photos -- from those meetings, emphasizing all the steps being taken by FEMA to ensure there aren’t storm victims left helpless like they were, say, in the Bush administration’s flubbed response to Hurricane Katrina.
“FEMA is proactively deploying Incident Management Assistance Teams to multiple states up and down the Eastern seaboard to ensure they have the support they need as they prepare for the storm," the readout from Obama’s Saturday briefing read. "FEMA is holding daily operation briefings with emergency response teams in potentially affected states, and FEMA liaisons are joining state and local emergency operations centers in potentially impacted areas. FEMA is also prepositioning commodities including water, meals, blankets and other resources, should they be needed, at Incident Support Bases along the East Coast."
FEMA administrator Craig Fugate reiterated this message during a media call on Monday, adding that his agency was “rapidly moving from preparing to being prepared to support response operations” in advance of Sandy’s landfall.
On the campaign side, Obama halted his flood of fundraising emails on Sunday, and the campaign is now using its Twitter, Facebook and campaign pages to instead urge donations to the Red Cross storm relief. 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.
Politics hasn’t completely vanished as the storm approaches, however. Four critical swing states are expected to be hit by the storm -- North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio and New Hampshire -- and these are the same four states in which Romney staffers are collecting storm relief supplies.
Obama is also still planning to visit Ohio on Wednesday.