Now Hurricane Sandy has caused widespread damage along the US eastern seaboard, an area that includes a number of so-called ‘swing states’ where it’s been unclear how the majority of people will vote in this month’s election. This gives President Obama a tremendous advantage going into the final days of the campaign. Unless they’ve been completely hopeless, incumbent politicians inevitably have a built-in advantage over their challengers, since many voters prefer to stick with a representative whose strengths and weaknesses they already know, rather than take a chance on a challenger whose skills and abilities are yet unproven. This is particularly the case of the office of president, where the demands are greater than any other job or elected office a candidate may have previously held. Romney has run a large company, directed the organizing committee of a winter Olympics, and been the relatively popular governor of Massachusetts, but all of these jobs are to being president what operating a successful franchise restaurant is to running the global franchising corporation: useful preparation, but not clear evidence of having what it takes.Whenever there’s a crisis, President Obama looks good. On TV, he talks and acts like someone who has things under control. He says all the right things about the need to take prompt action and to make sure those who have suffered are taken care of, and he looks like someone who means what he says when he states that lessons will be learned and acted upon. Hurricane Sandy gives the president yet another opportunity to show Americans that his administration can be relied upon when times get tough. This assumes, of course, that the federal government’s emergency response measures are indeed competent. To be sure, the Obama administration will make sure that every possible resource that can be mustered is dedicated to Hurricane Sandy recovery. This is probably would have happened even if this weren`t an election year. The uncoordinated response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 helped further erode the already falling confidence Americans had in President George W. Bush’s administration. The Obama administration clearly learned that lesson, made improvements at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and has been consistently quick and generous with resources for emergencies and natural disasters during the past four years. But you can be sure with election day coming so soon, the president’s going to do his best to make sure the government’s response to hurricane Sandy is the best it can be.
And what about Mitt Romney? He can act statesmanlike and say all the rights things, like this is a time when we need to put partisan politics aside, support the emergency responders, do what we can to help those in need, and so on. He can also make his own visits to communities in need, bringing the media along and drawing attention to the plight of those affected. These are precisely the things he should be doing, and I suspect he will. Unfortunately for him, it’s the president people will be wanting to see either visiting their own affected community, or at very least televised visiting others, whose assuring words they will want to hear and whose actions they’ll be judging. In the meantime, Romney will simply have to wait in the wings and try to look and act like a worthy heir apparent to voters in the eastern US, and focus his campaigning in regions that weren’t affected by the storm. And while the President is publicly dedicating his time to the relief effort, his campaign will be running TV ads reminding Americans that when Romney was running to become the Republican party’s nominee, he made a number of statements suggesting that the federal government should cut resources for emergency reliefand download more of the costs and work to state governments and the privatesector. Statements like these may sound defensible in the absence of an actual disaster, but make great political hay for his opponent when media reports are screaming (inaccurately, it would seem) that the floor of theNew York Stock Exchange is under three feet of water.
In human enterprise big or small, it’s often Mother Nature who gets the last word, and she has certainly made it known that she’s either not a strong supporter of the Romney campaign, or wants to throw one last test at President Obama to be sure he deserves another four years. We’ll know the outcome soon enough.