Obama gains an edge in presidential race amid New York storm fallout

With the election less than a week away, it's a chance for the president to show leadership in a crisis. Mitt Romney has a harder task

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 November, 2012, 3:19am

The questions are stacking up like storm debris along the Hudson River in New York.

What impact will superstorm Sandy - the biggest storm in US history and potentially its most costly - have on the presidential election, now less than a week away?

Will it hurt President Barack Obama's bid for a second term, scuppering his drive to nudge Democrat voters towards casting early votes? Or is his Republican rival Mitt Romney the one it will wound, thwarting his vaunted post-election momentum? For the moment, at least, it seems to be advantage Obama.

No one is pretending such questions are pretty at a time of crisis, but they nonetheless reflect the hard realities of a most political moment.

Just as Sandy made landfall, polls nationwide and in key swing states were revealing a race tightening to deadlock. But no other natural disaster has threatened to have an impact on an election in such a fashion.

Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey - the state that bore the brunt of the storm - was in no mood for such issues as he battled to lead local recovery efforts. In typically robust style, he said he "couldn't give a damn less about election day".

To prove the point, Christie - an outspoken backer of the Romney bid - had rare praise for Obama. "I have to give the president great credit," Christie said after one of several calls from Obama, who oversaw efforts from the emergency Situation Room of the White House. "He's done, as far as I'm concerned, a great job for New Jersey."

His comments are a reminder that the storm is an opportunity for Obama to show leadership at a crucial time.

Polls traditionally show Americans are generally moved positively by the assurance of a calm leader in "commander-in-chief" mode - and surveys show Obama is widely accepted in this role, with more question marks over his rival.

Unable to lead, and momentarily unable to criticise his rival, Romney has a harder role. He scrapped planned rallies in the vital Midwest swing state of Ohio, but nonetheless turned several planned appearances into "storm relief efforts". He offered a brief note of thanks - a far cry from his increasingly passionate stump speeches - before settling down to "work the tables", surrounded by donations of canned soup and other emergency provisions. It remains to be seen how those go over.

He was due to return to the campaign trail yesterday, with events in Florida, but may yet visit storm sites. Obama was due to tour hard hit areas yesterday.

Coverage of the storm does seem to have momentarily shifted focus off the Obama administration's actions during the fatal attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi in Libya - an issue which has been getting domestic attention, pushed by the partisan Fox News television channel.

Unfortunately for Romney, however, some of that focus is shifting onto comments he made in a Republican debate in July about the role of the Federal Emergency Management Agency - the body now playing a central role in recovery efforts across several states.

He said at the time that consideration should be given to devolving its functions back to individual state governments, or even to the private sector - all part of his small government policies.

With just days to go before election day next Tuesday, Romney's team would much rather the focus was on Benghazi and Obama than Romney and the agency. His spokesmen skirted questions about his current policies on Tuesday, adding that they didn't know how the disaster would affect the race.

The agency and then president George W. Bush were widely criticised when Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans in 2005. Bush infamously flew over New Orleans in the presidential jet but did not land, saying he did not want to interfere with rescue efforts in what was one of America's poorest regions.

Bush has been largely conspicuous by his absence on the Republican side during this campaign - and the Romney team will be hoping the hurricane aftermath doesn't push him back onto the agenda.