Distasteful as it may seem, the president could reap victory from this whirlwind.It should go without saying – although Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were keen to say little else yesterday – that no one should “play politics” with a storm as awesome and once-in-a-century-sized as Hurricane Sandy.
But it also goes without saying that in the election campaign headquarters in Boston and Chicago, the strategists are thinking of absolutely nothing else, even as they order their candidates to look straight ahead and appear as “presidential” as possible.
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.
Indeed, there’s research that shows that voters blame incumbents for poor weather. One study calculated that Al Gore lost 2.8 million votes to George W Bush because of droughts and floods.
More seriously, if Mr Obama, or his acolytes, do decide to play some sneaky politics with Sandy – heaven forfend – they might want to remind voters that Mr Romney has hinted he has plans to cut funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema).
The cost-cutting, government-crunching idea to give Fema’s responsibilities back to the states sits well with Republicans, at least until government proves too small for the impending task – all American politicians remain haunted by the flooding of New Orleans in 2005 which left George W Bush’s reputation permanently in the doldrums.
Mr Romney might secretly be hoping that Sandy has a negative impact on early voting, which tends to favour Democrats, although the major swing states – Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida – are notably out of Sandy’s immediate impact zone.
As for campaigning, well, Mr Obama has his hands tied (he has to stay in Washington looking commanding) which could have given Mr Romney a chance to steal a march in Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, but – perhaps wisely – he erred on the side of caution and cancelled all events lest (you guessed it) he was seen to be playing politics.
More importantly at this late stage, perhaps, is that the TV networks are going to be showing nothing apart from drowned-as-rats correspondents, crashing waves and miserable-looking evacuees from New Jersey.
The race, therefore, effectively gets “frozen” in the public mind. If you believe the poll averages that show Mr Obama is on course for a narrow victory thanks to his dominance in the swing states, then that could be very bad news for Mr Romney, whose campaign has been bragging about a last-minute advertising blitz that could put him over the top.
This multi-million-dollar air war – a kind of last-minute political shock-and-awe that worked well for Mr Romney in the Republican primary season – could now be totally overshadowed by the storm.
But even that scenario cuts both ways, since Romney supporters will argue that more people watching TV news – where they target their ads – means more people watching the ads, even if they are distracted by the storm.
All in all, you pays your money and takes your choice. For what it’s worth, I peer into the vortex that is Hurricane Sandy and foresee Mr Obama getting a marginal bump for looking presidential as long as nothing disastrous happens to undermine him – while Mr Romney, recently surging in the polls, has the frustration of trying to close the deal at a time when, all of a sudden, the voices of politicians are being drowned out by the roar of a mighty, mighty storm.
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