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Which port to weather this storm?

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WASHINGTON -- Who would you rather weather a storm with?

That's what this presidential campaign has come down to, and the choice is between the candidate with no responsibilities and the one already in charge (although not yet in charge, despite the hopes and beliefs of his most ardent supporters, of the wind and rain). This election's October surprise is a surprising late-season hurricane.

For Republican nominee Mitt Romney, the best strategy is to first, do no harm. If he truly has momentum, as some polls and pundits would have it, then mum's the word. When he goes unscripted, it's never pretty. "Corporations are people, my friend"; "I'm not concerned about the very poor"; his infamous apathy for "the 47 per cent." This is not a man practised at expressing common cause with the little guy.

So far this week, so good. Romney has been both grounded in the details (bring those campaign yard signs inside; "in high winds they can be dangerous and cause damage to homes and property") and full of lofty rhetoric ("I'm never prouder of America than when I see how we pull together in a crisis," he said Sunday night). From afar -- wisely he has not donned the clichéd parka, lest it blow in the wind -- he says he's getting updates on the storm from Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia.

At all costs, Romney needs to avoid putting himself at the centre of the disaster. That didn't work out so well on Libya, when he jumped ahead of the president with his ill-considered statement after the consulate in Benghazi was attacked.

Romney has another reason to keep quiet: He may not support the Federal Emergency Management Agency. (As always with Romney, it's tough to know where he actually stands.) In a Republican primary debate in June, Romney -- then in his severely conservative phase -- said more responsibility for disaster relief should fall to the states. "It is simply immoral," he said, for the federal government "to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids."

As governor of Massachusetts, Romney had no catastrophe to compare to this. When floods ravaged the state in May 2006, many mayors complained he'd vetoed flood-prevention funds a few years earlier. The Democratic mayor of one town said Romney only "showed up for the pictures" after the flood.

Which is why Romney as mere candidate may be better off than Romney as actual officeholder. No public official, not even the most powerful one on the planet, is more powerful than Mother Nature. No matter what President Barack Obama does, Sandy will result in more people dying and losing their homes, while millions of others will be frustrated and angry. So much for those early-voting returns, which Obama seems to be winning.

Natural disasters usually cause elected officials to lose their jobs, not keep them. Michael Bilandic, Richard J. Daley's successor, was ousted as mayor of Chicago by a snowstorm. George W. Bush's presidency never recovered from his slow reaction to hurricane Katrina. Christie got it wrong when he decided not to interrupt his 2010 Christmas holiday in Disney World for a storm back in New Jersey. (He's now getting a second chance to make a first impression, and making the most of it. He may not be able to stop the rain, but he can go on TV and talk about it.)

So maybe Sandy gives Obama a chance to appear presidential. Unlike Christie, he doesn't need a second chance: No one has ever looked more presidential than this. And unlike Bush, Obama didn't hire a political hack as head of FEMA.

Obama has also had some experience travelling to the sites of natural disasters and listening -- always more important than talking -- to local officials. He saw what remained of Joplin, Mo., after tornadoes blew through in May 2011. He visited the Gulf Coast several times just after the oil spill there in 2010.

And he stopped himself (almost in midair) from making a mistake this time. On Monday morning, instead of remaining in Florida to keep a crucial campaign appearance with former president Bill Clinton, Obama returned to Washington. Did the Big Dog call and say he could handle it alone, not to risk the blowback? Or did Obama have some quiet time to rethink the situation for himself? Did someone on his staff describe the split screen that awaited him, with the raging storm on one side and Obama deplaning Air Force One in sunny Orlando on the other?

Like everyone else, public officials can't do anything about the weather, and the impact of Sandy is far more than political. But how elected leaders respond to the weather -- in terms of words and actions -- does matter. Obama doesn't have Clinton's minister-in-chief demeanour, which carried the country through the Oklahoma City bombing. And it wouldn't be presidential to adopt the tweeter-in-chief persona of Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, N.J., offering to shovel constituents' sidewalks after a snowstorm.

Still, Obama might try to channel a little of Booker's man-of-the-people energy with Clinton's I-feel-your-rain warmth. He could come out on the other side of the storm better than he went in if he drops the cool. He used up his lifetime supply of that in Denver.

 

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.

 

--Bloomberg News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 31, 2012 A8

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