Obama focused on storm recovery at cost of campaigning

President Barack Obama speaks at the Disaster Operation Center of the Red Cross. President Barack Obama speaks at the Disaster Operation Center of the Red Cross. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
If the presidential campaign to most voters is television advertising, the campaign continues uninterrupted by Hurricane Sandy because the ad assault persists despite the devastation left behind by the storm. But for residents of the one state that has grown accustomed to repeated personal visits from the candidates, Sandy has changed the way the final week is playing out. Ohioans are still getting the ads but they won’t have President Obama there on Wednesday.

The president canceled a third day of campaign activities to remain in Washington to monitor the government’s response to the wreckage of Sandy and to visit New Jersey, site of some of the worse damage. Now with less than a week until Election Day, that means he won’t be in Ohio, one of the closest of the handful of battleground states. Instead, he will stay at the White House where he spent Monday and Tuesday calling officials in the hardest hit states and cities and assuring them that help is on the way.

The president left the executive mansion only for a brief visit to the headquarters of the American Red Cross. There he warned the country that “this storm is not yet over” even if the worst has passed. “Obviously,” he said, “this is something that is heartbreaking for the entire nation.” He said his main message to those trying to recover is that “America is with you.” He also directed part of his message to government officials, stating bluntly, “No bureaucracy; no red tape.”

He also appealed for contributions to the Red Cross. It is a much different appeal than he had planned for his Ohio swing. Then, he would have been asking for votes.

Ohio Democrats would love to have Obama there as much as possible as the race tightens, but were fully supportive of the cancellation. “The president needs to be presidential. Leadership is what you do in the worst of times,” said longtime Ohio Democratic strategist Jerry Austin.

Austin did not feel that Wednesday's cancellation would have a negative effect on the tight race in critical Ohio, where Obama narrowly leads Romney and which is a must-win for both candidates.

A White House official described the president as “very intense” about keeping the focus on relief efforts. “In the Sit Room 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,’ ” said the official. “He told his team to think creatively about ways to assist local areas and utilities that have been hit with power outages.”

On Tuesday, Obama held a conference call bringing together the governors and big-city mayors in the region affected. On the call, according to the White House, were the 13 governors of North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont and New Hampshire. The mayors of Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Newark, Jersey City, Atlantic City, and the District of Columbia also joined in. The White House said that some of the governors whose states absorbed less damage offered to provide aid to the harder-hit states. The president ordered Craig Fugate, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to facilitate the delivery of these resources.

Democrats hope any damage done by the lost campaign time on the ground will be balanced by voters seeing him doing his job in a crisis and by the praise coming from the local officials dealing with the crisis on the ground. And the White House made sure that pictures were released showing him at work in the Situation Room and in the Oval Office. It was a reminder that one of the candidates is the incumbent. Incumbency has risks — just ask President George W. Bush about the criticism that comes when you fumble a storm response like Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But it also has its benefits when the response is handled smoothly and professionally. It is easier, after all, to look “presidential” when you’re actually president.

And it never hurts if those actions bring praise from one of your toughest critics in the other party. That came early on Tuesday from one of Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s most outspoken champions, New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who said he had been on the phone with Obama three times in the previous 24 hours. At 4:28 a.m., Christie tweeted “I want to thank the president personally for all his assistance as (we) recover from the storm.” The governor then praised Obama again in an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. He said, “The president has been all over this and he deserves great credit.” He added that Obama “told me to call him if I needed anything and he absolutely means it and it's been very good working with the president and his administration.” In another interview with the Today show, Christie said that the president “has been outstanding.”

Christie, who will accompany Obama during his Wednesday visit, had seemed to chide the Romney campaign for hints that the Republican candidate may go to New Jersey to survey storm damage as if he were already president. Such visits are always sensitive, even for a president, because the timing has to be managed so the heavy security needed does not distract local officials from ongoing recovery efforts. On Fox News, Christie said he is not “the least bit concerned or interested” in the idea. He added, “I have a job to do. I’ve got 2.4 million people out of power, I’ve got devastation on the shore, I’ve got floods in the northern part of my state. If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics then you don’t know me.”

In Ohio, Romney’s challenge is how to keep campaigning while looking more presidential and less political. He went ahead with a planned event in Kettering. But he changed the emphasis of the rally, toning down his criticism of Obama and talking instead about the importance of aiding those in the Northeast suffering in the wake of the devastating storm, which has now claimed more than two dozen lives.
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