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.
Meanwhile, Republican rival Mitt Romney, who’s espoused smaller government, repeatedly declined Tuesday to answer questions about whether he’d eliminate the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
During a primary debate last year, the former Massachusetts governor said he supported the idea of states and private-sector groups taking over responsibility for disaster relief, adding that he’d “absolutely” shut down FEMA.
“Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction,” he said. “And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.”
As Sandy barreled down on the largest populations in the United States, his campaign sought to clarify this week that Romney’s emergency management response would include FEMA.
Romney followed Obama’s lead early this week, canceling campaign appearances Monday and Tuesday. He attended a storm relief event in the battleground state of Ohio, helping to load supplies such as diapers and bottled water into a truck – as news cameras watched.
Political observers said politicians learned a lesson when Bush presided over a disappointing federal response to Katrina. The former president saw his negative approval ratings soar, and he never recovered.
“It’s important for a president to pay attention to doing his job and being seen as paying attention to his job,’’ said Charles Franklin, the director of the Marquette University Law School poll.
There were signs that Obama was benefiting from the power of incumbency when New Jersey Gov. Christie, a star in Republican circles, made a point of praising the president – repeatedly.
Christie told Fox News that he’d spoken with Obama three times Monday and that the president called the last time at midnight, “asking what he could do.” Obama will join Christie on Wednesday in New Jersey, the hardest-hit state.
“I have to give the president great credit,” Christie said. “He’s been on the phone with me three times in the last 24 hours. He’s been very attentive, and anything I’ve asked for he’s gotten to me. So I thank the president publicly for that. He’s done, as far as I’m concerned, a great job for New Jersey.”
Christie, who gave the keynote address at the Republican National Convention this summer on Romney’s behalf, even used the word “forward.”
In a tweet Tuesday Christie said: “On conf call with POTUS discussing post-Sandy cleanup efforts in partnership with the feds. He is instructing Gov’t to lean forward to help.”
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