Disaster politics: Benghazi, Hurricane Sandy and the battle between Obama and Romney

Disasters can make or break a presidency or a campaign. President Obama has been criticized for handling the Libya attacks and lauded for responding to Hurricane Sandy. What gives?

11/01/2012 5:29 PM

11/01/2012 8:32 PM

Blown away by Hurricane Sandy: News of the Sept. 11 attacks in Benghazi, Libya.

But the coverage is returning as Sandy's floodwaters recede and Republicans press the Obama Administration for more answers about the deadly attacks in the Middle East.

"I think there's classified information the public should know about eventually but there's no reason for it to be classified," said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence, declining to discuss what classified information he has or has not seen.

Rubio said he hopes for more public information after his committee holds a closed-door hearing on the attacks Nov. 15.

"After the hearings," Rubio said, "there will be an enormous amount of pressure on them to disclose that."

Rubio, a Republican, said he was disappointed that the Democrat-controlled Senate scheduled the hearings after the election, and he suggested it gave President Barack Obama more time to spin "a political narrative."

Obama has received a boost of positive press from the latest disaster, Hurricane Sandy.

The monster storm dominated the news, largely because it affected so many people and destroyed so much in the backyard of the national media's broadcast nerve center in the New York area.

In contrast to how he handled Benghazi, Obama is winning plaudits for managing the crisis and striking up what some political observers jokingly called a 'bromance" with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a campaign-trail surrogate for Republican Mitt Romney.

The two incidents highlight the perils and profits inherent in the politics of disaster in the neck-and-neck presidential race.

Until Sandy struck this week, there was only one major disaster burning in the presidential race: Benghazi, the deaths of four foreign-service workers and the Obama Administration's differing explanations of what happened.

Now, Obama supporters are on offense, blasting Romney for suggesting in a June CNN debate that the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be cut or take more of a back seat in responding to disasters.

"We cannot — we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids," Romney said, when asked specifically about whether to cut costly disaster relief.

Romney's campaign Wednesday supplied a statement to CBS that clarified his position about the "key role" FEMA plays.

"As president, I will ensure FEMA has the funding it needs to fulfill its mission," he said, "while directing maximum resources to the first responders who work tirelessly to help those in need, because states and localities are in the best position to get aid to the individuals and communities affected by natural disasters."

George Haddow, an Obama supporter and former FEMA deputy staff chief in the Clinton Administration, said Romney's comments show "he doesn't know what he's talking about" when it comes to FEMA.

"Disasters are the most-political events that happen in a democracy," Haddow said.

"They get all of your attention. The media's there. It's white hot. There's a ton of money involved. There are people in distress. This is a platform. You either jump on that platform and define what you're doing or, if you don't, other people will. And they'll define it for you."

Former President George W. Bush is a prime example.

Bush's approval ratings soared after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But his administration was hobbled by Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans in 2005.

Romney was in danger of having his position on FEMA defined by the Obama campaign when the Republican repeatedly refused to answer questions from a reporter about his position earlier this week.

Similarly, Obama refused to answer questions last week from a local reporter in Colorado about whether his administration denied help to Americans under siege in Benghazi.

"We are finding out exactly what happened," Obama told KUSA-TV. "I guarantee you that everybody in the state department — our military, CIA, you name it, had the number one priority making sure that people were safe. These are our folks and we're going to find out exactly what happened, but what we're also going to do is make sure that we are identifying those who carried out these terrible attacks."

The day after the Libya attack, Obama said it was one in a number of "acts of terror" against the United States.

But then he and administration officials repeatedly suggested or said that it probably wasn't a terrorist attack, and instead was the result of an uprising due to an inflammatory anti-Islamic YouTube video that led to protests in Cairo, Egypt.

Rubio, who visited Libya last year and also sits on the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, said the administration's response made no sense because Libyans are among the least likely to rise up against the United States.

"I was shocked by that because it didn't mesh with anything I knew about Libya," Rubio said.

Crediting CNN and "open-source reporting," Rubio said it became quickly apparent that the Benghazi attacks were coordinated, occurred over a long period of time and involved heavy weapons. Yet the administration kept talking about the YouTube video.

"That leads you to conclude one of two things: Either they're incompetent because they couldn't analyze all that," Rubio said. "Or there's something they didn't want to know about because it's against their political narrative — that al-Qaida's on the run and bin Laden died."

Rubio said there's a chance Obama's administration "underestimated the security risk in Libya because they didn't think terrorism was there and that it somehow didn't pose a threat."

Rubio said Democrats seem more invested in classifying information and delaying public hearings this election season.

Obama, in his Denver interview, suggested that wasn't the case.

"The election has nothing to do with four brave Americans getting killed and us wanting to find out exactly what happened," he said. "Nobody wants to find out more what happened than I do."

But that won't happen in the U.S. Senate until after Nov. 6.

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