WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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 his events.
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 November 6.
Obama, who also held a conference call with governors and mayors from states in the storm’s path, sought to allay such concerns.
“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.
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 newfound momentum.
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 their guard.
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.
(The story corrects name of FEMA administrator in paragraph 16.)
Additional reporting by Jeff Mason and Samson Reiny; Editing by Stacey Joyce and Philip Barbara