WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama the candidate stepped aside Monday so the commander in chief could take over.
In the waning days of his re-election bid, the president scraped two days of campaigning and retreated from the trail. He hunkered down at the White House to oversee the government's response to the East Coast superstorm — and to project presidential leadership.
"The election will take care of itself next week," Obama said, speaking to reporters at the White House after hastily flying back to Washington from Florida, one of the handful of states the two campaigns are contesting the hardest.
Obama aides insisted that was not only the right decision, but also an easy one. Even with Obama locked in a tight race with Republican Mitt Romney, the president would have risked appearing to put politics over the public's safety had he pressed on with his travel plans. And that could have been enough to turn off some still-persuadable voters at a critical juncture in the campaign.
Now Obama has the opportunity — and the responsibility — to show the type of command in a crisis that only the president can offer. While Romney can make symbolic gestures, like canceling his own campaign events Monday and Tuesday, he doesn't have the power to provide tangible assistance.
"The president has real responsibilities and those responsibilities come first," said David Axelrod, the president's chief campaign strategist.
Of course, Obama's response to the storm still had plenty to do with politics. And he used both his words and his actions to sharpen the contrast between a candidate running for president and a candidate who already is president.
After returning to the White House Monday morning, Obama walked through the rain straight into the Oval Office. He convened a meeting with top government officials in the Situation Room. And later, standing behind a podium bearing the presidential seal, he appealed to politically divided Americans to put their differences aside during the storm.
"We look out for our friends, we look out for our neighbors and we set aside whatever issues we may have otherwise to make sure that we respond appropriately and with swiftness and that's exactly what I anticipate is going to happen here," he said.
Much of what Obama planned to do this week at the White House — hold briefings, authorize federal funding and stay in touch with officials in states affected by the storm — could have easily been done from the road. The White House sets up secure Internet and phone connections wherever he travels and many of his briefings, even when he's in Washington, are done over the phone or video conference.
Some aides mentioned that to the president as they contemplated how they would balance Obama's robust campaign travel schedule with the impending storm. But those discussions didn't last long. Obama told advisers he needed to be at the White House.
"This is one of the circumstances where in his view it makes the most sense for him to be in place in the White House," press secretary Jay Carney said on Air Force One's bumpy flight straight into the storm.
Obama's team had planned to kick off the final full week of campaigning with a trio of joint rallies with former President Bill Clinton. The two presidents were supposed to spend Monday dashing from Florida to Ohio to Virginia rallying Democratic supporters and trying to sway the small swath of undecided voters.
Even as it became clear the storm might disrupt some of those plans, the president did everything he could to squeeze in just a little more time on the campaign trail.
Obama moved up a flight to Orlando, Fla., where his first event with Clinton was scheduled, from Monday morning to Sunday night in order to get ahead of the storm.
But even before Air Force One departed Washington, the Virginia event was canceled. By the time the president's plane landed in Florida, aides scraped the second stop in Ohio and planned for the president to get back to Washington early.
The campaign made one last attempt early Monday to salvage the Florida event, weighing whether they could start early and still get back to Washington safely. But they quickly gave in to the storm, sending Clinton to the Florida event on his own and Obama back to Washington.
Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC