Sandy enters the political fray

31 Oct 2012

Ever heard Harold Wilson's saying that "a week is a long time in politics"? Back in September we were all clamouring over Mitt Romney's lame brained handling of the attack on the American embassy in Libya which cost the Ambassador his life and how it would affect his campaign. Today, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy's destructive battering of America's east coast, this incident is all but forgotten. In fact, it had probably already been buried in voters' minds long before Hurricane Sandy decided to take the reins of the presidential campaign.


Faced with such devastation, both contenders have put a halt to their respective campaigns, with President Obama cancelling campaign events to stay at the White House and Mitt Romney converting an Ohio rally into a storm relief event. However, with less than a week left until Election Day, politics cannot be swept away as it was with the Libyan incident. Granted, as President, Obama has a firm duty to manage the disaster in the best way possible regardless of the impending election, but that does not mean that the political spotlights will not be blaring as he does his job. One cannot naively presume that Obama simply feels no added pressure from the election to nail the emergency response. He may not want to appear as if he is overtly politicising the disaster, but he is most certainly aware that a good show of leadership, sympathy and competence is fundamentally political, and thus inextricably forms part of his campaign. As Mark Mardell from the BBC points out, Hurricane Sandy "puts the spotlight on President Obama as a leader in a time of crisis – both in terms of deeds and words." In effect, appearing to put politics aside is a fundamentally strategic political act; it is about being a president, and thus a political leader of a country. As such, failure to rise to the occasion will have political costs but it also presents a great opportunity to make a last stand in a neck-and-neck race. Sure, Obama did say that “I am not worried at this point on the impact on the election. I’m worried about the impact on families and our first responders. The election will take care of itself next week.” Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that natural disasters have political repercussions, particularly for presidents who have to take the lead.

For Mitt Romney there is less to be gained (and lost) as the media will not be interested in any speech he makes and he is not faced with one of the greatest challenges of his career. In fact, Hurricane Sandy has pushed him into the sidelines and putting politics aside is a less "political" act for him than it is for Obama. Whereas Romney's show of good taste by turning his rally into a relief event is only the minimum to be expected from him, it will not really score him any political points. Because of this he will resume campaigning today. Obama, on the other hand, will not resume his campaign but the fundamental difference is that he does not need to. Every decision taken with regards to the disaster relief will feed into his campaign whether he likes it or not. His last act before the election will simply be to do his job.

By Julia Fioretti


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