His role in supervising the clear-up of damage caused by the biggest storm to hit the eastern US in 75 years puts the president in centre shot of news footage that for at least the next 24 hours will be broadcast into every home of the US, airtime that could not be bought.
Latest polls show the presidential race is still being fought on the thinnest margins in states that have either been dealt glancing blows by Sandy – Ohio, Virginia, New Hampshire, – or know only too well what it is like to be mangled by the forces of nature – hurricanes in Florida, tornadoes in Iowa.
In a long piece on the Politico.com website, Reid Epstein outlines the challenges that Sandy has thrown down in front of the campaigns of Mr Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
Obama has canceled his campaign events through Wednesday, when he will tour hard-hit New Jersey with Governor Chris Christie, a top Romney surrogate who has been effusive in his praise of Obama and the federal government’s storm response.
Romney pressed forward Tuesday with a storm-related appearance in Dayton, Ohio. And as long as the storm dominates the news, both candidates will remain in a state of suspended animation, each waiting for the Sandy pause to pass before making their final campaign push.
The campaigns are in new territory, he argues, for there is no precedent for a national emergency to come so close to the end of a campaign. Judging when to restart negative attacks in key east coast states will be very difficult and with only six days of campaigning left, there is no time to rely on polls or focus groups.
John McCain learned that the hard way during his fumbled response to the 2008 financial crisis. More recently, Romney was criticized for slamming Obama over the attacks on the Benghazi Consulate before learning that Ambassador Chris Stevens had been killed.
Inevitably, Epstein says, disasters make presidents look better than rivals unless they obviously mishandle them. They can sweep into town with federal aid and telegenic images of support for victims, while the opponent has “nothing to offer beyond encouraging words”, usually delivered from out of state.
In the aftermath of Sandy, there is again nothing Romney can do to help areas impacted by the storm. Romney held what his campaign dubbed a “storm relief event” in Dayton Tuesday morning, but he risks sparking criticism that it was really a campaign appearance.
The only advantage that Mr Romney might have is that Florida, Iowa and Ohio will not be recipients of presidential disaster relief directly, Epstein writes, but set against that is the fact that the Republicans in Congress have been associated with calls to cut back on federal aid in emergencies.
Away from the storm-battered east coast, the campaign is still going on, the Associated Press‘ Thomas Beaumont and Brian Bakst point out, saying that Romney campaign ads have started to pop up in so-called Rust Belt states in the northern Midwest that the challenger has rarely targeted before.
Ads are running in Minnesota and Pennsylvania, where Republican presidential candidates haven’t won since the 1970s, and even Michigan voters are now seeing more of Mr Romney’s arguments.
On Esquire.com, Charles Pierce takes a sweeping view of the effect the “superstorm” might have:
This entire campaign has been fought out over the issue of whether or not we are all members of a viable political commonwealth with implicit mutual obligations to act through our government — a self-government that is, or ought to be, the purest creative project of that commonwealth — for the common good, or whether that government is a some sort of alien entity repressing our fundamental entrepreneurial energy. Over the next few days, I believe, we are going to see that argument brought to the sharpest point possible. If you want to see how this event will “impact the election,” look to what answer to that question emerges from the storm. It will tell us a lot about the election, and about ourselves.
In the Financial Times, Stephanie Kirchgaessner looks far beyond Sandy to the political storm that will face whoever triumphs on polling day:
As Mr Obama and Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger, head into the final week before Tuesday’s election, both are making promises to tackle the nation’s most pressing needs – including action to avoid the “fiscal cliff”, a combination of automatic spending cuts and tax increases equivalent to about 4 per cent of gross domestic product due to take effect early next year, which could push the country back into recession. Though their policy prescriptions differ, both vow to overhaul the tax code, tackle deficits and reform immigration.
But restoring the sense that the US political system can still address difficult problems could prove just as important as either man’s agenda. The next president will need to undo the perception that, in the words of S&P, “the predictability of American policy making and political institutions have weakened”.