“The longer they can have him being the president and not a candidate, the better for them,” Dowd said.
On Tuesday morning, Obama convened a videoconference from the Situation Room with Vice President Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Federal Emergency Management Administrator W. Craig Fugate and a dozen other top advisers.
According to one White House aide, he told them: “I want everyone leaning forward on this. I don’t want to hear that we didn’t do something because bureaucracy got in the way.”
He reiterated the message in a midday conference call with governors and mayors from 13 affected states and the District. Obama said that they “can call the White House directly themselves” if they encounter any bureaucratic red tape, according to D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). On a more personal note, Gray said, Obama told them that he was looking out his window and “I see there’s a mess out there, but all of my people are at work.”
Later in the day, Obama held another conference call, this one with utility executives, to underscore the urgency of restoring electricity to the millions who lost power along the East Coast, the White House said.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), a vocal surrogate for Obama, said the White House has been proactive. He received a call from Napolitano offering assistance and inquiring about the state’s needs. And O’Malley traded e-mails with David Agnew, Obama’s head of intergovernmental affairs, and the point person for governors at the White House.
By Sunday, FEMA officials were embedded in states’ emergency operations centers. They sat near representatives from the Red Cross, getting minute-by-minute updates as the storm wobbled toward the Eastern Seaboard.
“Under this administration, FEMA has been a much more professional agency,” O’Malley said. “Gone are the days of ‘heck of a job, Brownie,’ when they show up after the disaster hits and help you bail water,” O’Malley said, referring to Bush’s initial praise for FEMA Director Michael D. Brown’s handling of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Brown later resigned.
In an interview with a Denver radio station on Monday, Brown suggested that Obama was playing politics with the storm by responding so urgently so no one could second-guess him. The former FEMA director compared the reaction to Obama’s decision to go to Las Vegas for a fundraiser the day after the attacks that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans at a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Libya.
“Why did he jump on this so quickly and go back to D.C. so quickly when in . . . [the] Benghazi [situation], he went to Las Vegas?” Brown asked.
But several high-ranking Republicans lauded the White House’s performance. Christie was the most vocal, saying at a news conference that the president’s response had been “outstanding” and that working with the administration had been “wonderful.”
Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, chair of the Republican Governors Association and a leading Romney surrogate, said the federal response was “incredibly fast and we’re very grateful.”
McDonnell described Obama as “direct and personal” in his approach to the disaster, adding that during natural disasters, “partisanship goes out the window.”
“The election’s going to come, but it says a lot about the president, and it makes me feel good to be an American that people have had the right focus,” McDonnell added.
Aaron C. Davis, Errin Haines, Greg Jaffe and Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.