As millions in the northeast United States recover from Hurricane Sandy’s deadly and destructive wake, the storm may have one more lingering consequence: helping turn the tide in the race for the US presidency.
There is no underestimating the power of the incumbency when it comes to electoral politics. And with just a week remaining before the presidential election, the storm has allowed President Barack Obama to very publicly don the mantle of Rescuer-in-Chief while confining Republican challenger Mitt Romney to the sidelines of the relief effort.
While Romney on Tuesday helped gather a truckload of supplies for areas along the US East Coast ravaged by the storm, Obama was signing off on possibly billions of dollars in federal aid for the affected areas—and garnering praise from a high-profile Romney supporter.
“The federal government response has been great. I was on the phone at midnight again last night with the president personally,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican surrogate for the Romney campaign, told NBC News on Tuesday. “The president has been outstanding in this.”
Christie, who was once considered a possible Romney running mate, said he spoke to Obama three times on Monday.
“He has been incredibly supportive and helpful to our state, and not once did he bring up the election,” Christie told CNN.
Christie, who delivered the keynote speech at this year’s Republican National Convention that nominated Romney as the party’s candidate, is scheduled to view storm damage with Obama on Wednesday in New Jersey, the state which bore the enormous brunt of Sandy’s impact.
“Romney is out there trying to cast himself as the bipartisan leader, while one of the highest-profile Republican governors is literally walking arm-in-arm with the other guy,” said Chris Lehane, a former campaign operative and senior aide for former President Bill Clinton and Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore.
Natural disasters give sitting presidents unique powers to issue executive decisions on the disbursement of federal relief aid.
Over the past 150 years, the US Congress has delegated these powers to the White House in the interest of hastening the process of securing federal assistance, said Andrew Reeves, a political scientist who has studied politics of natural disasters in America.
“A member of Congress would have to blow a lot of political capital in order to get those resources right away,” said Reeves, a professor at Boston University. “It would be very onerous to instantly get a bunch of dollars to your state.”
In the context of a presidential campaign, a challenger like Romney is simply unable to harness the type of resources to directly and immediately help out citizens that the incumbent has at his disposal, Reeves noted.
“He’s out there, and he wants to look like he’s doing his part,” Reeves said of Romney. “But he’s just a private citizen.”
Obama on Tuesday approved requests from several states for emergency federal assistance to help with storm damage after signing off on similar requests for New York and New Jersey earlier.
Reeves, who has published research demonstrating that voters reward sitting US presidents who grant their states disaster relief, noted that at least one former US presidential challenger managed to undermine an incumbent’s credibility following a natural disaster.
In 1992, Democratic challenger Bill Clinton successfully attacked the administration of President George H.W. Bush for its slow response to Hurricane Andrew in August of that year—just less than three months before the election, Reeves said.
This strategy, however, was enabled by the widespread criticism of the White House’s response to Andrew, which pummeled Florida and Louisiana, said Lehane, who worked on the 1992 Clinton campaign.
“Clinton was able to address the role of government and putting people first,” he said.
Both Lehane and Reeves said, however, that because Andrew hit more than two months before the election, it is difficult to draw parallels with Sandy’s role in next week’s election on Nov. 6.
“What we’re seeing now is unprecedented,” Reeves said.