WASHINGTON -- In the fall of 2008, a crisis in downtown Manhattan allowed Sen. Barack Obama to demonstrate leadership skills that helped propel him to the presidency. Four years later, another crisis there is offering him the opportunity to close the deal on a second term.
Time is not all that separates the collapse of the financial markets and the destructive force of Hurricane Sandy, which hit New York City this past Monday. The longterm social, economic and environmental impacts of the events differ vastly as well.
But for Obama, the two crises are bookends to his first term in office, each providing him a public stage on which to demonstrate the brand of practical, results-oriented politics that he preaches but has, occasionally, found difficult to execute.
Aides to the president are reluctant to discuss the political implications of Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath. They barely entertain them in private.
"I am hesitant to make political calculations about the impact of something, an event that resulted in the death of 50 people and the loss of $50 billion in property," David Axelrod, Obama's top adviser, said on a conference call Wednesday. "This was a disaster of huge proportion, and the president is doing what his responsibilities require and that includes going to New Jersey ... to offer the support of people in our country, to tour the scene himself, to speak firsthand with the first responders and the elected officials on the scene."
But while Axelrod predicted that the race would be more or less frozen in the hurricane's wake, others thought that the campaign had entered an unpredictable moment. Like the financial meltdown in October 2008, Sandy gives voters a window into how the president performs under the pressure of the office. And for that alone, it has the potential to affect the election, even if only marginally.
"In a campaign you have to recognize that these real-world events provide a prism through which voters judge candidates," said Tad Devine, the longtime Democratic strategist who served as a senior adviser to Al Gore and John Kerry's presidential campaigns. "The campaign has to be aware of that, as well as extremely sensitive to politicizing the tragedy, whether it's an economic downturn or the tragedy of a hurricane."
Four years ago, Obama used this to his favor. When his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), suspended his presidential campaign to help Congress sort out a relief package for a cratering financial sector, Obama declined to match his knee-jerk reaction. Instead, he kept his campaign going, while returning to Washington for high-stakes meetings about how to pass what would later become the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
In those meetings, Obama spoke on behalf of Democratic negotiators while McCain, to the shock of many present, largely stayed quiet. When reports leaked out, the contrast proved decisive.
"Obama really became president during that crisis, in terms of his overall attitude and how he approached the job," said a Democratic operative who has consulted on both Obama campaigns.
Hurricane Sandy isn't likely to have the same impact on the race as the financial crisis, in part because the scenarios are so different. There is a logical end to a natural disaster -- New York, New Jersey and all other states hit will take stock of the damage and rebuild -- but less so to the meltdown on Wall Street, when people were as scared as they were distraught. On the political front, as well, the stakes seem lower.
"I think there is a nice parallelism there," said Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush's former press secretary. "The problem with it though is that if you look at it as bookends, all the books that came in between is what this election is all about. I don’t think at the end of the day this is an issue people will vote on. It interrupted the flow of the campaign and it's just an unknown about how it affects voter behavior."
For Fleischer, it's not how Obama responds in a moment of crisis that matters, so much as how he handles the fallout. Showing steady calm as Wall Street collapsed may have been admirable, he said, but the president's inability to more forcefully pull the economy out of the recession was far more important.
That criticism is shared by progressives, who argue, from a different philosophical perch, that Obama's failure to extend his leadership during times of crisis into post-crisis boldness is what's hindering him now.
"He handled the financial crisis by treating it as if the primary priority was maintaining the financial structure intact," said Dean Baker, co-director at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. "It doesn’t seem as though he ever gave serious thought to the idea that we really need to overhaul the financial system or the structure."
"He surrounded himself with people who are close to Wall Street. You can say that was due to inexperience, but he’s replaced them with people close to Wall Street," Baker added. "He’s got four more years of experience, but I don’t think he’s done anything differently, or would do anything differently, if the same situation came up today."
Obama's defenders insist that he's evolved with the job. There have been other hurricanes, along with tornadoes, oil spills, fiscal calamities and intense, sometimes devastating foreign policy developments. Each event has presented a unique set of challenges, and not all have been handled with aplomb. But over time, the president has become better equipped to deal with them -- not just in the moment they occur, but also in their aftermath.
"When it comes to being a leader, in my judgment, President Obama has earned the highest grades," said longtime Democratic strategist Donna Brazile. "Where he has been weakest and showed vulnerability was on his communications skills. He often skips a beat unless it is a crisis. If it is a crisis he is at harmony with himself."
"But President Obama has been through so many of these storms in the past few years that he's now prepared for it," she said. "He understands the role of presidential leadership."
Those around Obama also understand the importance of striking the right note in the first moments of a crisis. It was not coincidental that Obama's initial calls were to the governors whose states were affected by Sandy, or that he toured the damage with Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) within three days after it hit. As an adviser to the president noted, reacting quickly and casting a "wide net" in terms of those he consults with are both lessons learned from crises past.
Even operatives without a stake in the president’s reelection agreed that Obama's leadership in these instances has been admirable. Larry Smith, who served as press secretary to Dan Quayle and now runs the Institute for Crisis Management, said the president has done “a fairly decent job” handling a myriad of crises in just one term.
“He has one particularly good quality that I find very valuable: the ability to project calmness and confidence,” Smith said. “And that goes a long, long way in overcoming the various constituents’ concerns.”