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Looking presidential: The optics of leadership during a disaster

By Halimah Abdullah, CNN
October 30, 2012 -- Updated 1948 GMT (0348 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Obama cancels campaigning through Wednesday; monitors storm response
  • Tricky political moment for both candidates ahead of next week's election
  • Romney shifts focus to campaigning in Ohio; makes staff available for storm relief

(CNN) -- As Sandy took aim at the East Coast, President Barack Obama discarded campaign events in Florida and Virginia to return to Washington and address the storm from the White House.

Obama visits Red Cross: 'Storm is not yet over'

Mitt Romney adjusted his schedule to hit the battleground state of Ohio and direct campaign resources in Virginia and New Hampshire to focus on storm relief.

Romney on storm aftermath: 'People are hurting'

The candidates sought to balance the real threat of a killer storm against the need to squeeze out any last-minute advantages in battleground states ahead of next Tuesday's vote.

For the next few days, routine campaigning may be put on the shelf. This week, it may all be about who can behave the most presidential.

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Obama was staying put in Washington on Tuesday and Wednesday, while Romney attended an event in Ohio where his campaign sought goods and other help for those in states affected by the storm.

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David Gergen, a professor of public service at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, said Obama did the right thing by returning to the nation's capital as the storm approached.

"People will claim he did it for political reasons, but I believe he deserves the benefit of any doubts. He did exactly what he should be doing as president," said Gergen, who is also a CNN contributor. "That is part of the job. Presidents are expected to lead in a time of crisis."

The candidates are treading carefully in dealing with the storm's political fallout. Both the president and Romney canceled more than a dozen campaign events since Saturday so as not to appear insensitive, chew up resources and otherwise get in the way of storm preparations.

For the moment, the political optics may favor Obama, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

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"The better the response the better Obama is going to look," Sabato said. "The worse the response ... the worse he's going to look. This presidential moment could help or hurt him."

Obama signed disaster declarations for New York and New Jersey, which were hit by severe flooding and wind damage, as well as other states and the District of Columbia. Virginia was the lone battleground state in Sandy's path.

The White House said that Obama would remain in Washington on Wednesday as well to monitor the storm response and would not participate in campaign events scheduled for Ohio.

Obama administration officials stressed they would work with states to ensure disaster aid is available for the millions affected by the storm.

A White House official said Obama told officials that he wants them to think creatively about ways to help states hit by power outages affecting at least seven million people throughout the mid Atlantic region.

"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," Obama said, according to the official.

Obama has received briefings right along by Federal Emergency Management Agency officials and held a meeting in the White House situation room before reading a statement to reporters on Monday as the storm approached. He said it would be a "difficult storm."

Romney also turned his attention to Sandy during a campaign event in Ohio on Monday, saying "our hearts and prayers" were with those in her path.

"A lot of people are going to be facing some real tough times as a result of Sandy's fury," Romney said in Avon Lake, Ohio.

Romney called off a Monday night campaign event in Wisconsin, and sent vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan in his place to another in Florida. But his continued campaigning in Ohio may not be seen as a issue.

"As long as he is in states where weather is not a problem, I don't see any problem with him campaigning," added Gergen, who is also the director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. "He really has no role in trying to deal with this storm."

Romney's campaign late Monday night announced that an event scheduled for Tuesday in Kettering, Ohio, had been rebranded as a "storm relief event."

"We won't be able to solve all the problems with our effort," Romney told the crowd on Tuesday. "There will still be a lot of people looking for goods even though we've gathered these things but I know that -- one of the things I've learned in life is that you make the difference you can, and you can't always solve all the problems yourself but you can make the difference in the life of one or two people as a result of one or two people making an effort."

Romney said he believed that supplies gathered at the event would be put on trucks and shipped to New Jersey where Gov. Chris Christie said on Tuesday that floodwaters had stranded hundreds of people.

5 things to watch in hurricane-wracked campaign

Obama also canceled trips to the swing states of Florida and Colorado, far beyond the reach of Hurricane Sandy.

A shrewd move, political experts say.

"As voters, particularly those who are undecided, deliberate over whom they should support, they will watch Obama as he navigates through the storm and the post-storm clean-up," wrote Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.

"The crisis offers an opportunity for him to act presidential in a way for which some voters are thirsting and to demonstrate the kind of command that has often been lacking," Zelizer said.

Obama's very visible posture is in stark contrast to his predecessor.

President George W. Bush's administration was widely criticized for failing to act in a timely manner during Hurricane Katrina.

"Presidents for a generation or two will remember the Bush disaster with Katrina," Sabato said. "Presidents and their staffs go out of their way to avoid another Katrina happening to their president."

Similarly, when Sen. John McCain rushed back to Washington in 2008 at the height of the banking meltdown, effectively "suspending" his presidential campaign against Obama because of the "historic crisis in our financial system," the move was seen as odd and impulsive at a time when steady leadership was needed.

On the other hand, Obama's handling of the financial crisis -- appearing masterful while McCain appeared confused, marked a turning point in the 2008 presidential race, political experts say.

Both campaigns are keenly aware of how it looked.

Romney was in a tricky position. He dialed back heavy campaigning and steered clear of pontificating on recovery efforts.

"Romney can't do anything but express concern," Sabato said.

Experts disagree about whether the storm will ultimately have an impact on the outcome of the election.

"My sense is that it is going to be a wash," said Gergen, who has worked for four presidents in both parties. "It won't change the outcome."

Asked at the White House on Monday if he was worried about the storm's impact on the election, Obama said he was concerned about those in harm's way and how Sandy might influence the economy.

"The election will take care of itself next week," he said.

CNN's Kevin Bohn, Candy Crowley, Kevin Liptak, Gregory Wallace, Ashley Killough, Rachel Streitfeld, Shannon Travis, Jim Acosta, Dan Lothian and Steve Brusk contributed to this report.

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