Hurricane Sandy made land on the East Coast of the United States last night. At least 15 people are confirmed dead and the destruction to New York State has been pronounced by President Obama to be a “major disaster”.
Flooding has ravaged New York - the New York Stock exchange closed for the first time in 27 years, power stations have exploded and vast tracts of the city were left without power; and Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey amongst other states have all suffered immense damage from the ‘Frankenstorm’.
Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have suspended campaigning, with the President returning to the White House to deal with the developing crises.
Obama’s stern authority in his role as Commander-in-chief has won universal praise and even prompted his 2008 rival Senator John McCain to say it may win him electoral plaudits; Romney has also pursued a line of avoiding any and all politicisation of Sandy and the tragedy that ensues, urging the public to donate to the Red Cross, meeting Governors, and visiting an emergency shelter in Ohio.
While both candidates are wary of any perception of trying to capitalise on the event, they are both very aware of a prime example of how not to handle an emergency - President George W Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina.
The BBC’s Mark Mardell notes that this is a moment at which people will look to the President, so acting Presidential is vital for the candidates in the eyes of the public. Being the incumbent, Obama has a clear advantage in this respect; electioneering, however is at the back of everyone’s mind, so the impact of the storm on the election is far from clear.
The effects of the storm are wide reaching and impossible to predict. Obama may be blamed for factors out of his control and likewise Romney could be shut out of the news cycle. One immediate impact is that early voting, traditionally of more benefit to the Democrats, is being affected.
Romney has in the past mentioned plans to reduce funding to FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) – but so far the Obama campaign have kept their powder dry on this attack line. So far Obama and Romney have retained a mature and respectful perspective in their response to the terrible events.
However, as Peter Foster writes in the Telegraph, though no one would seek to “play politics” with Hurricane Sandy, it is clearly in the minds of strategists on both sides – and will be on the minds of voters as the go to the polls a week hence:
The truth is that with just one week to go until election day, and with Mr Obama and Mr Romney tied in the polls, you can construct a narrative to suit your political inclinations out of Hurricane Sandy. Look hard enough into those lowering, spiralling clouds, and there is a silver lining for everyone.
Take President Obama, hightailing it back to Washington DC yesterday morning in Air Force One. Did he look “presidential”, or did he look slightly daffy and dithering for having jetted down to Florida on Sunday night for a Monday morning event, only to then change his mind hours before he was due to speak?
As I – also stranded in Orlando having followed the commander-in-chief’s lead, but alas without a private Boeing 747 at my disposal to effect an 11-hour extraction plan – asked myself on waking: “Don’t they watch the weather forecast in the White House?”
Hurricane Sandy really can cut so many ways politically. After returning to the capital, Mr Obama was soon on the nation’s television screens ordering everyone to do as they were told while giving the clear impression that everyone was now safe, because the boss was back in town.
That’s magnificent politics, until the storm response is ineffectual – something that Mr Obama can’t actually control – and then the President will get it in the neck from voters for failing to do enough things that weren’t really his responsibility in the first place.
After the years of campaigning, the mass amounts of money spent, the Presidency really could come down to the next few days – and factors outside the control of either candidate.
If you have a loved one you are worried about and wish to check on their wellbeing, this site from the Red Cross allows people to register as safe; the Guardian and BBC live streams are also available to check monitor events as they unfold.