If President Obama had the time for some introspection on the campaign trail, he might take offense at all the media speculation (and in many cases wishful thinking gussied up as speculation) that his response to Hurricane Sandy will give him the edge going into Election Day.
In effect, people are saying: “Obama is doing the minimum requirements of his job, what a game-changer!”
Now, one could quibble about whether he’s really doing what a president should. He’s handing out a bunch of checks, which is warranted, but he has staff to do that. Moreover, presidential photo ops at disaster sites aren’t all that helpful. In his remarks Wednesday, the president thanked some local politicians and told people to visit the FEMA website, if they have electricity. The imperative for him to be the one delivering that message is no doubt obvious to all.
Still, the conventional wisdom is probably right that acting presidential during a crisis helps Obama politically. And it’s probably true that New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s praise of Obama is helping at the margins too. Though it’s probably helping most in New Jersey, where Obama would win anyway — and with the D.C. press corps, which loves both stories of bipartisanship and stories that help Obama.
But if this tragic natural disaster is boosting the president in any meaningful way, it’s not because of any of that.
Before I go on, let me say that like most people, I find the scoring of natural disasters for their political impact distasteful. But it’s also unavoidable. Politics is about the conduct of politicians and how they allocate taxpayer-funded resources. James Lee Witt, Bill Clinton’s FEMA director, was inadvertently insightful when he said, “Disasters are very political events.”
That said, to the extent that Hurricane Sandy is a boon to Obama it’s because the storm saved him from himself.
During the weeks leading up to the storm, the president, vice president, and the Obama campaign were being, to use a family-friendly term, jerks.
The president in particular was acting like he was auditioning for Keith Olbermann’s old time slot at MSNBC.
In the first presidential debate, Mitt Romney said he didn’t think it made sense to borrow millions from China to subsidize public television, including the immensely profitable outfit that owns Big Bird.
Obama’s response was to mock Romney for his war on Big Bird, insinuating in ads and condescending rants (often punctuated by Obama laughing at his own jokes) that Romney thinks Big Bird is the source of all of our problems. Anyone who watched the debate knew that Obama was being both petty and dishonest.
In the second presidential debate, Romney inartfully explained that as a newly elected governor of Massachusetts, he did exactly what liberals and Democrats should have wanted him to do: go out of his way to find qualified women for top jobs. “And so we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our Cabinet,” Romney explained. “I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks?’ And they brought us whole binders full of women.”
Instead of conservatives fretting over this nod to identity politics bean counting, we saw liberals, egged on by the president, freaking out over the word “binders” as if it meant, well, something funny, important, and damning about Romney. After all, we know that real leaders organize their documents in file folders, not filthy, stinking, yucky binders.
At the end of an interview with Rolling Stone, an editor there told Obama that his six-year-old daughter had a message for the president “Tell him: You can do it.” Instead of replying with an aw-shucks thank you, Obama immediately snapped back with a remark about how little kids can tell Romney’s a “bull****er.”
I know what you’re thinking: Classy. Presidential. High-minded.
The irony, I think, is that the president was projecting a label better applied to himself, and voters were catching on to it in ways they hadn’t before, even when he promised to make the oceans heel to his command. I still expect the president to fail in his bid to be reelected. But if he squeaks by, it just might be because he was saved from himself — by the very oceans he failed to conquer.