Lingering anger about the previous president's performance when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans provides a backdrop that will benefit Obama if his administration does a solid job, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center.
"You gain much more as a president being contrasted with George W. Bush and Hurricane Katrina then you do giving a speech in some battleground state and getting on the evening news as a campaigner," Jamieson said.
She said a natural disaster gives a sitting president "unlimited access to the media to say things the public wants and needs to hear in a fashion that reinforces that he is president."
The 2008 election also was hit by a fall surprise, albeit one of human creation— the plummeting stock market and near collapse of the nation's financial sector that September. Many voters blamed that on the Republicans in power, and it helped Obama capture the presidency.
This time, neither candidate can be accused of failing to prevent the weather. But Obama's reputation will suffer if the federal government's response is feeble or botched.
With Election Day a week away, there may be little time to make such assessments, however, and a risk of appearing to politicize tragedy if Romney speaks up too soon — a complaint that Democrats lodged against him when a U.S. Consulate in Libya was attacked.
"Criticism could boomerang if it appears to be ginned up to win votes in the election as opposed to genuine concern that people were not protected or people were not helped," said Mitchell McKinney, a professor of political communication at the University of Missouri.
For the former Massachusetts governor, with no political office as a platform, finding a strong, positive role in the storm response is difficult. Romney used a campaign event Monday at a high school gym in Avon Lake, Ohio, to make a plea for donations to the Red Cross. His campaign offices in storm-hit areas were collecting emergency supplies.
Even as Obama canceled an appearance in Florida on Monday and rushed back to Washington to oversee the storm response, first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden kept campaigning.
"In times of crisis, we all pull together as one American family," Mrs. Obama told supporters at a campaign event in Iowa City, Iowa, before launching into an upbeat summation of her husband's accomplishments and goals.
The president and Romney also spoke of Americans helping each other.
"President Obama is doing the right thing. Romney, too," said Democratic Party strategist Donna Brazile. "Most Americans know what the closing arguments are by now. Let's focus on taking care of each other."
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