Hurricane Sandy: Storm gives Obama chance to display command skills

 

For a day at least, Hurricane Sandy appears to have done for President Barack Obama what he has not been able to do for himself.

In a campaign notable mostly for its negativity, the historic storm provided Obama with a commander-in-chief moment a week before Election Day. The president gained a rare moment of bipartisan praise, with Democratic and Republican governors alike commending the performance of the federal government. And the storm put on pause, for now, the sense that rival Mitt Romney had all the momentum in the home stretch.

On Wednesday, Obama will travel to New Jersey to tour damaged areas with Republican Gov. Chris Christie, a regular critic of the president who heaped praise on him in the aftermath of the storm, saying that "the president has been all over this and he deserves great credit."

The collaboration between Christie and Obama provided a stark contrast from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when President George W. Bush's administration and that of Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, engaged in a bitter round of finger-pointing over the botched handling of the disaster.

The storm thrust Romney in the almost impossible position of trying to write a role for himself in the story that has gripped the nation's attention. The GOP nominee held a relief event in Ohio to collect donations for storm victims, but the event had the trappings of a regular campaign rally, with the candidate's standard theme music and biographical video. As Romney packed emergency supplies, he did not respond to reporters who asked whether he is reconsidering his earlier assertion that disaster management is a job that should be turned over to the states.

Obama's performance could be viewed quite differently as federal relief efforts continue to play out. Whatever problems arise will largely be Obama's to bear, just as Bush was blamed for Katrina.

"The storm is not over yet," Obama cautioned during a Tuesday afternoon visit to the headquarters of the Red Cross in Washington. "We're going to continue to push as hard as we can" to provide resources, he added, before emphasizing that his message to his administration is "no bureaucracy, no red tape."

The storm also calls attention to a dynamic that all incumbents face: how to balance being president while running for reelection. Rarely, if ever, has a president had to deal with such a major disaster so close to Election Day, and any misstep or move that appears politically motivated could cost Obama with voters.

For now, the president's Chicago-based reelection team is exhibiting no urgency to return him to the campaign trail. The campaign canceled two rallies in Ohio on Wednesday, and one aide said Obama's schedule is being determined by the president, along with White House advisers such as David Plouffe and Chief of Staff Jacob Lew.

This aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly about internal strategy, suggested that at this point, the rallies are marginally helpful in getting supporters to vote, but that otherwise "the race is set."

In the meantime, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina sent e-mails to supporters in storm-affected states asking that they donate to the Red Cross.

Matthew Dowd, a top aide for Bush's 2004 reelection effort, said Obama has used the power of his incumbency and "done just exactly what he needs to do."

"The longer they can have him being the president and not a candidate, the better for them," Dowd said.

On Tuesday morning, Obama convened a videoconference from the Situation Room with Vice President Joe Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Federal Emergency Management Administrator W. Craig Fugate and a dozen other top advisers.

According to one White House aide, he told them: "I want everyone leaning forward on this. I don't want to hear that we didn't do something because bureaucracy got in the way."

He reiterated the message in a midday conference call with governors and mayors from 13 affected states and the District of Columbia. Obama said that they "can call the White House directly themselves" if they encounter any bureaucratic red tape, according to D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray, a Democrat. On a more personal note, Gray said, Obama told them that he was looking out his window and "I see there's a mess out there, but all of my people are at work."

Later in the day, Obama held another conference call, this one with utility executives, to underscore the urgency of restoring electricity to the millions who lost power along the East Coast, the White House said.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat and vocal surrogate for Obama, said the White House has been proactive. He received a call from Napolitano offering assistance and inquiring about the state's needs. And O'Malley traded e-mails with David Agnew, Obama's head of intergovernmental affairs, and the point person for governors at the White House.

By Sunday, FEMA officials were embedded in states' emergency operations centers. They sat near representatives from the Red Cross, getting minute-by-minute updates as the storm wobbled toward the Eastern Seaboard.

"Under this administration, FEMA has been a much more professional agency," O'Malley said. "Gone are the days of 'heck of a job, Brownie,' when they show up after the disaster hits and help you bail water," O'Malley said, referring to Bush's initial praise for FEMA Director Michael D. Brown's handling of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Brown later resigned.

In an interview with a Denver radio station on Monday, Brown suggested that Obama was playing politics with the storm by responding so urgently so no one could second-guess him. The former FEMA director compared the reaction to Obama's decision to go to Las Vegas for a fundraiser the day after the attacks that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans at a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Libya.

"Why did he jump on this so quickly and go back to D.C. so quickly when in . . . [the] Benghazi [situation], he went to Las Vegas?" Brown asked.

But several high-ranking Republicans lauded the White House's performance. Christie was the most vocal, saying at a news conference that the president's response had been "outstanding" and that working with the administration had been "wonderful."

Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, chair of the Republican Governors Association and a leading Romney surrogate, said the federal response was "incredibly fast and we're very grateful."

McDonnell described Obama as "direct and personal" in his approach to the disaster, adding that during natural disasters, "partisanship goes out the window."

"The election's going to come, but it says a lot about the president, and it makes me feel good to be an American that people have had the right focus," McDonnell added.

- - -

Aaron C. Davis, Errin Haines, Greg Jaffe and Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.

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