(Corrects name of FEMA administrator in paragraph 16)
* Obama seeks to show lessons learned from Bush with Katrina
* Vows to "respond big and respond fast" after storm hits
By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON, Oct 28 President Barack Obama faced
the delicate task on Sunday of balancing his response to a
potentially huge natural disaster with his own tough re-election
effort as Hurricane Sandy bore down on the U.S. East Coast nine
days before Election Day.
Trying to demonstrate that he had learned the lessons of
White House predecessor George W. Bush's botched handling of
Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Obama sought to project the image of
a president fully engaged in marshaling resources to deal with a
looming national emergency.
Visiting the federal storm-response headquarters in
Washington, Obama warned East Coast residents to prepare for a
"serious and big" storm that will be slow-moving and might take
time to clear up. But he vowed the government would "respond big
and respond fast" after it strikes.
Even as he pledged to stay on top of the storm threat, Obama
- after shuffling his campaign travel because of the approaching
hurricane - stuck to his plan to fly to Florida on Sunday night
for a rally in Orlando on Monday.
But he scrapped an appearance later in the day in Ohio -
considered the most critical election swing state - so that he
could return to Washington to monitor what could be one of the
largest storms to ever hit the U.S. mainland.
The hurricane threat also scrambled Republican challenger
Mitt Romney's schedule, but he too was going ahead with some of
With Sandy forecast to barrel ashore between the
mid-Atlantic states to New England late on Monday, Obama faces
an increased risk to his prospects in a tight presidential race
if the government's emergency apparatus fails to perform well.
Voters go to the polls nationwide on Nov. 6.
Obama, who also held a conference call with governors and
mayors from states in the storm's path, sought to allay such
"My main message to everybody involved is that we have to
take this seriously," Obama told reporters after he was briefed.
He said emergency officials were confident that enough equipment
and personnel were in place in advance of the storm's onslaught.
"My message to the governors, as well as to the mayors, is
anything they need, we will be there, and we will cut through
red tape. We are not going to get bogged down with a lot of
rules," he said.
LESSONS LEARNED FROM KATRINA
Obama's aides said storm preparations were in line with his
response to other natural disasters on his watch, such as last
summer's devastating wildfires in Colorado, last year's
Hurricane Irene and the tropical storm that hit the Gulf Coast
this summer ahead of the Democratic convention.
President George W. Bush suffered serious political damage
from his administration's inept handling of Katrina, which
devastated New Orleans early in his second term. He was also
widely criticized for being out-of-touch personally and slow to
respond to the crisis.
With that in mind, Obama's White House has made it a
practice of trying to get ahead of events while putting the
president front and center.
This time, however, the country faces a major natural
disaster on the cusp of a presidential election, when the
incumbent has recently been struggling to curb his opponent's
While the risk of a fumbled government response could have a
political cost, it is also an opportunity for Obama to look
presidential in a national crisis in a way that Romney can't.
The pressure is on Craig Fugate, head of the Federal
Emergency Management Agency, to prevent a repeat of Katrina.
FEMA bore the brunt of the blame for the Katrina debacle and
then-director Michael Brown resigned shortly afterward, with
Bush's remark "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" an
enduring source of ridicule.
With Obama looking on, Fugate - who was appointed by the
Democratic president - exhorted his lieutenants not to let down
Officials in the path of the storm scrambled to ensure that
extended power outages would not disrupt early voting that
appears to be critical for both candidates this year.
Obama said he did not think the storm would impact voting,
but some on his staff were not so certain. A severe disruption
is likely to hurt Obama more, as his campaign has counted on
early voting to lock up the support of younger voters and others
considered less likely to go to the polls on Election Day.
But an Obama campaign official said, "We remain confident in
our ability to get our voters to the polls by Election Day."
Mindful of the hardships ahead, the Obama campaign said it
would suspend fundraising emails in Virginia, Pennsylvania,
North Carolina, New Jersey and Washington D.C., starting on
Monday and encouraged supporters to donate to the Red Cross.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason and Samson Reiny; Editing
by Stacey Joyce and Philip Barbara)