Hurricane Sandy: Winds of Political Change?

Obama has put lessons from Katrina to use, and some partisans have shown that they can unite in tragedy.

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Despite this short-lived calm at the eye of the storm, the body politic remained in motion. Mitt Romney officially suspended campaign activities for two days but participated in a supposed “relief effort” to benefit the American Red Cross and raise money for victims of the hurricane. Though he claimed it wasn’t political, the event was held in Ohio — the one state without which no Republican candidate has ever managed to win the White House.

Democratic pundits expressed concern that the storm, which was downgraded to a cyclone, would wreak havoc on the key states of Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania — all of which had been safely in Obama’s column but remain within the statistical margin of error. Voter turnout could be affected as winter storms meet Sandy’s violent wind gusts.

Like Christie, who told Fox News, “If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics, you don’t know me,” President Obama appeared more concerned with the damage done by Sandy than he did about next Tuesday’s electoral matchup. Obama canceled a third straight day of campaigning, having already scratched an event in Florida on Monday and now another on Wednesday in the swing state of Ohio.

Instead he’s slated to visit New Jersey, where Sandy made landfall. The meeting with Christie is more than a photo op and allows the president to direct necessary resources to the worst-affected areas.

The Obama administration’s well-organized, well-executed response is a sign that lessons were learned from the Katrina debacle. This October surprise — a term used in American political parlance to describe a game-changing news event that influences the November election — appears to be favoring the incumbent. Four days after Katrina, nearly 80,000 people were still trapped in New Orleans without food, power or sanitation. And though Katrina was a strong Category 4 storm, the Category 1 Sandy was much larger — spanning more than 1,000 miles across — cutting power lines in 17 states.

The natural disaster presents a particularly complicated challenge to former Gov. Romney’s campaign, which will undoubtedly be forced to explain his call for cuts in FEMA’s federal budget during the Republican primary debates (when he described the agency as “immoral”).

All politics are local, and in the post-Katrina era all major storms have become political. It appears that President Obama is riding the wave and Romney will try to break it.

Edward Wyckoff Williams is contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.