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Ayushman Jamwal
Sunday , November 04, 2012 at 23 : 29

The politics of disaster: Hurricane Sandy and the US elections


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As Hurricane Sandy pounded the eastern coast of the United States, the campaign dynamics of the presidential elections changed dramatically even though temporarily. During Sandy, Barack Obama was no longer the Democrat Party's nominee, but the President of the United States. All eyes were on him for how he was going to deliver the nation from the crisis, while all eyes were on Romney whether he could successfully challenge the President's leadership, this time in real time besides in retrospect. While the American political fraternity scorns 'playing politics' in times of crisis, both Romney and Obama campaigns went into stealth mode, employing subtle tactics for American hearts and minds. The past few days have shown that incumbency favoured Obama by the simple fact that he was doing a great job as President.

Obama cancelled his campaign events in the crucial swing state of Ohio this week as he continued to monitor the storm's fallout with his advisors. Not surprisingly, the White House released four different photographs of the President in his situation room hard at work. On Tuesday, Obama's heartfelt speech at the Red Cross headquarters in Washington was beamed across the nation as he made an appeal to American citizens for donations. He highlighted how his administration was working hard to cut through the red tape to make sure the relief and rescue operations took place swiftly and smoothly. As New Jersey faced the brunt of the storm, politics was off the table for Republican state governor and Romney loyalist Chris Christie who praised Obama for his leadership. Recently on CBS News he said, "He (Obama) accelerated the major disaster declaration for New Jersey without the usual red tape, I can't thank the president enough for that. Cooperation from the president of the United States has been outstanding, he deserves great credit." On Wednesday, Christie accompanied Obama on his tour of New Jersey to assess the damage caused by the storm. In a speech Obama reassured citizens, "We will follow up to make sure you get all the help you need until you rebuild. The federal government will be working as closely as possible with the state and local officials, and we will not quit until this is done."

Towards the west side of the country, Obama's most eloquent supporter, former President Bill Clinton, continued the political slugfest ushering in the topic of global warming for the first time in the elections. At a speech at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, he criticised Romney for opposing Obama's efforts to fight global warming through sustainable means. Mixing in the economy, Clinton attacked Romney for opposing tax credits for wind and solar energy emphasizing that 175,000 Americans were employed in 'good, middle class jobs' in those sectors.

Romney on the other hand had a limited hand of cards to play. While he may have refrained from political mudslinging, there was nothing significant he could attack Obama with while his own pals in the Republican Party were praising the President. Romney temporarily changed his campaign tact holding a storm relief rally in Ohio. He appealed to his supporters for supplies and posed for the camera 'participating' in the relief effort. His supporters on the other hand kept the campaign spirit alive at the rally, brandishing t-shirts saying, "Obama: You're Fired" and "Don't tread on me" amongst others. Yet, even a non-partisan approach couldn't give Romney an edge as the media jogged its memory and put him on the spot with an inconvenient question. During a CNN primary debate last year, Romney said he was in favour of reducing the role of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, putting individual states in-charge of emergency response, and even supported introducing the private sector. Romney ignored the questions from reporters at the rally while his staff was quick to point out that he would not eliminate the Agency if elected.

Obama's response to Hurricane Sandy may have been swift, but his performance may not deliver him any significant political advantage. The eastern coast where the storm hit is primarily Democrat territory and Obama's dynamic leadership may only have re-enforced his party's hold. His disaster management may get him some level of political traction in the central and swing states, but with them practically unaffected by the storm but most affected by the economic downturn, the economy has returned as the prime political issue. With Hurricane Sandy now dissipating and a Katrina style disaster averted, Obama and Romney have suspended their ceasefire. At a rally in Green Bay in Wisconsin on Friday, Obama emphasised the improving economic conditions under his leadership and criticised Romney for advocating 'top-down' economics which preceded the recession. Romney on the other hand attacked the President's record at a rally in Virginia, throwing out large figures on unemployment and the budget deficit. As polling day approaches on the 6th of this month, he turned Obama's slogan of 'four more years' to 'five more days' as the crowds cheered him on. With no major faux pas in the last few days, Romney may still keep the race neck to neck as both candidates are back to square one in the swing states in the final stretch of the elections. The next few days are going to be very interesting.


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Ayushman Jamwal works on the foreign desk at CNN-IBN.

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