As President Obama and Mitt Romney navigate the treacherous politics of running a late-stage presidential campaign in the wake of a massive natural disaster, both are carefully trying to make themselves appear to be focused on the wreckage of storm Sandy rather than the race.
On Tuesday, Mitt Romney turned a campaign rally in Ohio into a “storm relief event.” The president cancelled his appearances for Tuesday and Wednesday, though surrogates are holding events. Both campaigns will surely be looking to capture the images that make their candidates appear presidential at a time of crisis (think George W. Bush on the pile of rubble after 9/11, not peering out of an airplane after Hurricane Katrina).
But no photo opp in the world can top the praise of a job well done that comes from an affected, outspoken governor from the other party. In comments that perfectly encapsulated not only the severity of the storm but the divisiveness of our national politics and the bluntness of the speaker, New Jersey governor Chris Christie—primetime GOP convention speaker and frequent campaign surrogate for Mitt Romney—heaped praise on Obama’s initial reaction to the storm.
Christie told news outlets that the president’s response had been “outstanding,” said that coordinating with the administration had been “wonderful,” and remarked that “the president has been all over this and he deserves great credit.” He even told Fox News the president had done a “great job for New Jersey” while staying above the fray about politics: “I’ve got a job to do here in New Jersey that’s much bigger than presidential politics, and I could care less about any of that stuff. I have a job to do. I’ve got 2.4 million people out of power. I’ve got devastation on the Shore. I’ve got floods in the northern part of my state. If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics, then you don’t know me.”
It’s possible Christie was doing his own bit of crisis politics,sounding bipartisan for whatever his political future holds. But his remarks are also a reminder that in the wake of a disaster, the best thing a leader can do is focus simply on doing his or her job as best as possible. People will notice. Christie shared telling details about Obama calling him not just once but three times, including once at midnight. We heard Christie tell us the president shared his direct phone number, and that he received phone calls from the Federal Emergency Management Agency at 2 a.m. No press conference or photo of Obama standing in knee-deep water could be as powerful.
People are tired of the presidential campaign at this point. They want to see leaders take action, not attack each other. Those who haven’t made up their mind aren’t going to be swayed by another stump speech from the president, especially when he has competent (and arguably far more convincing) surrogates like former president Bill Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama.
With just seven days to go before the election, Obama could do worse than to literally stop campaigning. He could come out and say that he will not be appearing at campaign events until the crisis no longer demands his full attention. As the polls tighten and the race remains a dead heat, the president holds anadvantage Romney doesn’t: He actually has a critical leadership job to do.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.