Monday, October 29, 2012

Crossfire hurricane: Sandy and everything after

FOR MONTHS, Team Obama has employed the word “FORWARD” as its new one-word meme, up to now rendered in white letters against a blue field, with nothing after it. But in recent days, President Obama has attended campaign rallies amid a lot of the same imagery as before – only now the word FORWARD gets an exclamation mark in the banners around the hall.

The quasi-militaristic aspect to the word (you can almost hear John Wayne saying it on horseback in a John Ford western) is that much more apparent with the exclamatory; so is the urgency that Team Obama is bringing to the campaign as a whole, with nine days before it’s all over.

Likewise, the Mitt Romney campaign (getting a recent uplift in the polls) seems to have found its mojo or a reasonable facsimile, despite two debate losses and the last-minute self-inflicted millstone of Richard Mourdock.

Everyone is ready for the last part of the game. Which is a good thing, now that there’s a new player in the game. Her name is Sandy, and she will not be denied. What she does in the next 48 hours could matter hugely in the 2012 presidential campaign. This is the October surprise no one could have wargamed.

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At this writing, Hurricane Sandy is undergoing the process of transforming itself into the dreaded freak of weather they're calling "Frankenstorm." The language of the National Weather Service advisory says it all:


The 900-mile storm began its life as three systems. Two of them — a blast of Arctic air barreling from the north and a early-winter storm front from the west — have combined … and combined again with the original Hurricane Sandy, one of the last of the 2012 hurricane season, up from the Caribbean and until recently expected to die out harmlessly in the mid-Atlantic ocean, tracking north and east far from American shores.

The combination of the three systems changes everything. The current meteorological consensus is that, when the storm makes landfall shortly, it will be as an apparently unprecedented hybrid beast, one with the traditional and catastrophic storm-surge characteristics of a hurricane, and the high winds and freezing temperatures of a nor'easter.

The potential for human disaster is the main thing. Estimates vary on the number of people potentially in or near the path of Sandy; some have said 50 million. One is much higher than that: “We’re looking at impact of greater than 50 to 60 million people,” said Louis Uccellini, head of environmental prediction for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in a Time interview.

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EVEN BEFORE Sandy arrives, the storm's being viewed in epic, almost Biblical terms. The prospects for creating social, environmental and economic changes are vast, even if only in the short term. And in the world of presidential politics, Sandy doesn’t so much change the game as it ups the ante on the game already being played.

For President Obama, this will be a towering test of his ability to orchestrate the resources of the federal government in an unprecedented emergency context. FEMA, the federal agency that became the embodiment of feckless governmental bureaucracy in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, is much improved since 2005. FEMA director Craig Fugate, a veteran hurricane watcher, works with professionals with experience in state and local disaster response. The agency has made advances in rapid contact with the public, with enhanced social media and smartphone access to timely information.

The president’s early reactions indicate he’s ready. “My main message to everybody involved is that we have to take this seriously,” Obama said Sunday, meeting with FEMA officials. He urged people to “listen to your local officials.”

“My message to the governors as well as to the mayors is anything they need, we will be there, and we will cut through red tape. We are not going to get bogged down with a lot of rules,” he said. “We want to make sure we are anticipating and leaning forward into making sure that we have the best possible response to what is going to be a big and messy system.”

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If Obama properly manages the domestic government as it rallies in response to FrankenSandy, it will reinforce his bona fides as the National Manager of a broad-scale domestic emergency. As it is, and despite its potential tragedy, the approaching storm will be an opportunity to reinforce the Obama brand — preparation, experience, a steadiness at the helm — in a way that no campaign ad can.

How that translates into votes on Nov. 6 is anyone’s guess. Early voting’s been going on since early September, but the storm’s expected impact in at least 10 states could snarl in-person turnout on a wide scale.

That fact would seem to favor Team Obama’s formidable ground-game operations, with two and three times as many campaign field offices as Team Romney. But the power outages that are certain to happen in those states, and maybe beyond, will complicate things for even the best field operation.

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TEAM ROMNEY faces another problem, or what amounts to another unforced error on the part of the candidate.

In the CNN Republican candidates’ debate in June 2011, Romney was asked whether FEMA should be dismantled, with its responsibilities assumed by the individual states.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction. And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that's even better. Instead of thinking, in the federal budget, what we should cut, we should ask the opposite question, what should we keep?”

“Including disaster relief, though?” asked CNN’s John King, the debate moderator.

“We cannot, we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids,” Romney said, doubling down on absolutist conservatism doctrine. “It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we'll all be dead and gone before it’s paid off. It makes no sense at all.”

It’s still to be seen how Romney’s position back then dovetails, or doesn’t, with where Romney stands on the issue today. Makes you wish we had one more debate to find out. But whatever position comes up next on the Etch a Sketch identity machine will have to contend with the candidate’s previous position that paying for the nation’s first operational line of response to domestic emergencies is “immoral” … in the face of one of those emergencies playing itself out in real time, in the lives of 60 million Americans, most of whom vote.

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FRANKENSANDY also affects another component of the 2012 race for the White House. The polls that the candidates live by are already feeling the effects of the storm; with planned or storm-related power outages, they’re denied telephone access to maybe as many as 10 million Americans; this short-circuits their ability to provide snapshots of the national mood.

Gallup editor in chief Frank Newport released the following statement a few hours ago:

“Gallup has suspended polling for its daily tracking as of Monday night and will reassess on a day-to-day basis. The ultimate effect on the overall picture of polling between now and this weekend, including election polling, will depend on what happens as a result of the storm, about which we will have a better understanding of on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.”

Mark Blumenthal of The Huffington Post reports that New Jersey, site of the expected landfall, “is home to the corporate headquarters of a number of pollsters, including Gallup, Rasmussen Reports, SurveyUSA and Princeton Survey Research Associates International (PSRAI), a call center that conducts interviews for the Pew Research Center, among other clients.

It’s a given that the people on the eastern seaboard of the United States are in hunker-down mode (and good wishes for safety and relative calm in the coming days go out to every one of them). What’s left to be seen is how this supersized evidence of the unpredictability of nature affects the unpredictability of the state of the national race. While it’s an east coast phenomenon, FrankenSandy’s soon to have the rest of the country in hunker-down mode, too.

Image credits: Sandy satellite and thermal images: NOAA/NASA. Obama at FEMA briefing: via Christian Science Monitor ( Empty NYSE trading floor: The Associated Press. Romney: Debate pool image. Gallup logo: © 2012 Gallup. 

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