WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has spent months trying to balance his re-election bid with running the government.
Now, just when his campaign needs him the most, with little more than a week before the election, his official job is beckoning.
Republican challenger Mitt Romney, too, faces questions about how to conduct his campaign as a superstorm charges toward the East Coast. But as president, it’s Obama who oversees the federal government’s preparations for the looming storm and it’s Obama who will bear the responsibility for any missteps.
With that in mind, Obama scrapped campaign events Monday night and Tuesday morning. He planned to return to the White House late Monday to monitor the storm and the government’s response.
“This is an example, yet again, of the president having to put his responsibilities as commander in chief and as leader of the country first, while at the same time he pursues his responsibilities as a candidate for re-election,” Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman, told reporters traveling with Obama to a campaign event Saturday in New Hampshire.
Still, ripping up Obama’s strategically planned travel schedule was something his Chicago-based campaign was loath to do unless absolutely necessary.
In the tight race, the candidates have few opportunities left to blitz through the most competitive states, trying to build momentum and make a final pitch to undecided voters.
The president’s handling of the storm could sway those late-breaking voters. If Obama is perceived as a strong leader who shows command in a crisis, some undecided voters may be compelled to back the president. But a botched response or a sense that he’s putting politics over public safety could weaken his support at a point in the race where there’s little chance to reverse course.
“I think that the president of the United States is the commander in chief. The American people look to him, and I’m sure he will conduct himself and play his leadership role in a fine fashion. So I would imagine that might help him a little bit,” said Arizona Sen. John McCain, who lost to Obama in 2008.
“But I’m not sure it will affect votes. People have been exposed to this very long campaign,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Obama advisers say they’ve learned the lessons from President George W. Bush’s widely criticized response to Hurricane Katrina. Bush was seen as ineffective and out of touch, and his presidency never recovered.
That’s why Obama’s team has moved quickly throughout the year to avoid the impression that the president was shirking his responsibilities, even as the campaign ramped up.
When separate crises struck Colorado this summer – destructive wildfires and a mass shooting at a movie theater – Obama hastily arranged trips to meet with victims and their families. When a hurricane barreled through the Gulf Coast ahead of the Democratic Convention, the president added a stop in New Orleans to his preconvention itinerary.
But those decisions were far easier than what’s facing Obama’s team. Back then, there was time to add or reschedule trips. Now, with just nine days until Election Day, time is a precious commodity and canceling trips may mean never having the chance to make them up.
Hurricane Sandy was expected to hit the East Coast late Monday, then combine with two winter weather systems as it moves inland, creating a hybrid superstorm. At least four battleground states are likely to be hit: New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia.
Obama plans to spend every day between now and Nov. 6 on the road in most of those states and others, though his schedule does call for him to be back in Washington some nights.
In canceling Obama’s event Monday in Virginia, aides also considered the optics of urging thousands of people to venture out to a political rally in the midst of a raging storm.
Still, it was clear Obama’s team was working hard to ensure that the president could keep campaigning as long as possible before he was needed back in Washington.
His departure for Florida, where he’ll hold an event with Bill Clinton, was moved up from Monday morning to Sunday night in order to get ahead of the storm. Even though Monday’s late event in Virginia was scrapped, Obama and Clinton planned to squeeze in an evening rally in Youngstown, Ohio, before the president was to return to the White House.
Romney canceled three events in Virginia on Sunday and planned to spend the day campaigning with running mate Paul Ryan in Ohio.
If bad weather keeps people in hard-hit battleground states from going to the polls, it could mess up the campaigns’ carefully crafted get-out-the-vote efforts.
Jennifer Psaki, Obama’s campaign spokeswoman, said the Democratic ticket was urging people to vote early when they can, especially if it helps them get to the polls before the storm.
“Safety comes first,” she said. “And that’s the case with early voting as well.”