Trying to keep his job as he does his job, President Barack Obama assured the nation Tuesday that his administration was capably ready for a menacing Hurricane Isaac. And then he climbed aboard his helicopter and went searching for votes.
Obama’s swift pivot illustrated the president’s juggle of governing and campaigning — and that neither ever stops in an election year.
Standing alone in the White House Diplomatic Room, Obama first reminded TV viewers, in so many words, that he is the only president in the race.
Succinct and serious, Obama said he was the one who ordered federal help in place in the Gulf Coast. His administration would do “everything possible.”
And it was he, as president, who had the authority to warn Americans in the storm’s path: “Now is not the time to tempt fate. You need to take this seriously.”
By afternoon, Obama the campaigner appeared.
The suit coat was gone, the tie loosened, the sleeves rolled up, the smile back. Obama had moved from a hurricane to the Iowa State Cyclones.
On a 90-degree day in the heartland, Obama had gone ahead with his three-state tour of college towns, seeking to stir up his young supporters. Yes, the president and his team were keeping an eye on Isaac. But there would be no ceding the day as Republicans prepared to pound on him at their national convention in Tampa, Fla.
“It should be a pretty entertaining show,” Obama dryly told thousands of students in Ames, Iowa. “I’m sure they will have some wonderful things to say about me. But what you won’t hear from them is a path forward that meets the challenges of our time.”
Tone, timing, a tightening window to campaign. The political legacy of Hurricane Katrina.
Obama sought to balance all those factors as he moved between his worlds of governing and getting elected again.
He settled into a middle ground in which he went politicking only after trying to make clear that public safety came first.
So he did what people might expect of a president.
He called governors in the region, got briefed by weather and security advisers, declared states of emergency before the storm hit to help speed the flow of aid.
Obama also knew the Republicans, having already lost one day of their convention to the storm, were not holding back. In a rousingly partisan scene in Tampa, Republican speakers ripped into Obama’s record, and delegates formally nominated Mitt Romney as the candidate to try to kick Obama out of office.
That gave the president political cover to campaign without reservation.
Meanwhile, Obama’s administration sent the signals it was working for the people: New auto standards to double gas mileage by 2025 were announced.
Obama has scuttled political events before in times of national crisis. He at least considered it this time.
Following the progress of Isaac, Obama and senior aides weighed whether to scrap the campaign trip, given the uncertainty about the storm’s intensity and path.
After talking with meteorologists, governors in the region and emergency preparedness officials, Obama and his team kept their schedule while still evaluating developments in the Gulf.
Even still, the White House made clear that it could curtail Obama’s plans at any time. He was heading next to college towns in Colorado and Virginia.
The incentive to maintain the schedule was influenced by the limited amount of time left before Election Day.
“It’s important for him to be out there less than 70 days before the election, making the case,” Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
And important for his campaign to keep asking for money. In the midst of Obama’s double-pronged day, his campaign manager, Jim Messina, sent out a fundraising email. It said the Republicans at their convention were about to “mirror the distortions Gov. Romney has based his entire campaign on.”
And what did Obama do after delivering his beat-Romney- campaign speech in Iowa?
Call top homeland security aide John Brennan for an update on the storm.
And maintain his campaign schedule.