A week ago, as Hurricane Sandy headed up the East Coast, Mitt Romney looked to be consolidating his recent gains in the polls. A week later, with many still suffering from the impact of the storm, Romney’s momentum has ebbed and Democratic optimism is off the charts. Assuming that the Democrats are right and Romney loses, was this all the fault of the storm in which President Obama got to play commander-in-chief and take the credit for what has been depicted in the press as an effective federal response to the crisis?
The answer here is: not really. The storm didn’t hurt the president and certainly didn’t help Romney, as it took the focus off politics for a crucial few days (much as the hurricane that threatened parts of the country during the Republican National Convention at the end of August undermined the GOP’s hopes for pulling off a successful infomercial). But the reason it played so well for the president is directly related to the inherent advantages that have always made Romney’s effort an uphill climb: incumbency and a mainstream media in the tank for Obama and determined to portray him as successful even when the facts don’t justify the cheerleading. Though many conservatives have spent this year assuming the president was toast, this latest setback for Republicans is yet another reminder of how out of touch they were with political reality. The election is by no means the foregone conclusion that many liberals are claiming this morning; unless the Democrat turnout matches that of 2008, the pollsters and pundits predicting an Obama victory will look very foolish on Wednesday morning. But the impact of the hurricane on the race demonstrates that beating Obama required a little luck as well as a good candidate and a competent campaign.
Sandy’s impact was more than just a diversion from political business as usual. It was a chance for many in the mainstream media to trot out comparisons between the federal response to Sandy to that of the Bush administration to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. While there’s no question that the government was better prepared and was able to do what it could more quickly this time, the assumption that Bush deserved to be blamed for what happened in New Orleans while Obama deserves credit for the situation in New Jersey and New York is a partisan distortion. The bulk of the problems in New Orleans were the result of the abject failure of state and city first responders and officials. Yet the pictures of the devastation and the sufferers are still linked to the general perception of Bush’s incompetence. By contrast, the narrative in which Obama got to be the hero of Sandy doesn’t seem to be affected by the fact that many Americans are still without power or shelter a week after the storm.
Of course, blaming Obama for what’s happening in New Jersey and New York wouldn’t be any more fair than blaming Bush for the collapse of the levees in New Orleans or the fact that most of the police and firemen in that city fled rather than doing their duty. There are some things that really are beyond the scope of any president to control, and the weather is one of them. That’s true even for a president who promised that he could turn back the oceans, as Obama famously did when he accepted the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. But anyone who thinks the liberal media wouldn’t be blaming a GOP president for the plight of Sandy’s victims doesn’t understand much about American politics.
The point here is not just that the media gave Obama a boost last week, but to highlight the fact that throughout this campaign that is what they have done at virtually every point. Just as most of the mainstream media failed to follow up on the scandalous failure that led to the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, and then turned a blind eye to the administration’s politically motivated deceptions about it, there was never much chance that they wouldn’t use Sandy to help Obama.
Beating Obama has always meant overcoming the handicap of media bias as well as the inclination of many Americans not to unseat the first African-American president. If Romney falls short tomorrow, it will not be just the fault of a hurricane, but will also be due to the lack of a level playing field for the candidates on virtually any issue.