WASHINGTON -- In the final days of his final election, President Barack Obama is finding that a storm IS his campaign.
After suspending official campaigning in deference to Hurricane Sandy for three crucial days, he’s using the power of his office not only to oversee the federal government response, but also to showcase for voters the popular side of an active government while presenting a take-charge image of himself reinforced by the multi-media message machinery of the White House.
Obama addressed the nation from the White House. Cameras followed him to a local Red Cross office. His staff released a flurry of photos of the president being briefed on emergency preparations and readouts of his calls to governors and mayors.
Obama and his aides even managed to adapt his campaign slogan – “Forward” – at least five times this week in official statements about Hurricane Sandy.
“We want to make sure that we are anticipating and leaning forward into making sure that we’ve got the best possible response to what is going to be a big and messy system,” he said Monday, in one example.
"I want every agency to lean forward and to make sure that we are getting the resources where they’re needed as quickly as possible,” he said Tuesday, in another.
The president had little choice but to turn his attention to the gigantic storm that threatened the East Coast. It’s part of his job. Also, anything less would have opened him up to criticism like that former President George W. Bush faced when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf of Mexico Coast in 2005.
“He has to clearly put candidate Obama on the back burner in lieu of President Obama,” said Lee M. Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. “He has no choice, but it doesn’t necessarily hurt him politically.”
Appearing presidential during a natural disaster, even in the final days of an election, is a “powerful campaign strategy,” said Donald F. Kettl, the dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, who’s studied American disaster responses since Katrina.
Obama canceled his appearance at planned campaign rallies Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in several swing states – including Virginia, Ohio and Florida – and flew back to Washington to remain at the White House overseeing the response. On Wednesday, he’ll tour storm damage in New Jersey with Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who at one point entertained a challenge to Obama.
White House officials sought to cast the president as entirely focused on the storm.
“He’s very intense about it," one official there said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity as a matter of White House policy. “In the meeting this morning, he said, ‘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.’ ”
Vice President Joe Biden had an unsolicited message for reporters Tuesday that his boss was doing a terrific job. “I’ve never seen a guy so focused,” Biden said.
For Obama, who’s spent months campaigning about all the good government can do, the federal response to Sandy provides the perfect example to show voters what he means.