On November 4, 1979 when Jimmy Carter’s presidency depended on gaining the freedom of the US hostages held by Iranian student militants, he was unable to achieve this goal even when it looked like the Iranians were ready to yield.
Ronald Reagan pounced on this failure and Carter lost. A few months later the hostages were released after Reagan assumed the presidency. In 1992 George Bush fresh from victory in “Desert Storm” enjoyed a 95 per cent approval rating. But by October 19 the US was in a mild recession and upstart Bill Clinton was driven by the famous words: “it’s the economy stupid”. Bush was finished.
US political legend holds that there will be an incident, a surprise in late October in a presidential election year, which will separate the candidates at a point where one moves so far ahead that he wins by more votes than anyone anticipates. Is Hurricane Sandy the 2012 October surprise for Barack Obama?
Given the close race, it will take a deciding deed or moment for Obama or Mitt Romney to pull away in the last dash to victory. There is no doubt Sandy is a political storm and not just a weather event.
The memory of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is still clear to American voters. The inability of George W Bush to lead in that crisis sealed the fate of the Republican Party candidate, no matter who it was going to be. Now, Obama is facing his October event. In almost any other election, this event would be an inconvenience for voters and not the deciding moment for the President or his challenger. But this year is different.
Obama has looked lost on the key domestic issue of the economy. Romney, in spite of major gaffes such as his comments on the 47 per cent and a disastrous London trip has hammered the President on the issue of jobs. There is little doubt that Romney held his own in the debates. Now a real crisis has hit the nation. What will this October surprise yield?
First, both candidates have to get out their voters. Obama’s team is worried that city-dwelling Democrats will be evacuated or polling places moved at the last moment, suppressing the lower-income Democratic base votes, especially among inner-city Hispanics and Blacks. As Katrina showed, low-income voters have too many life support issues like food and shelter to worry about, well ahead of trying to find a new voting place. Romney’s team worried about his auto dependent suburban and rural voters who may not be able to travel to the polls due to road outages and blockages. Many bridges have washed away in the folds accompanying the storm.
Second, who looks and acts presidential? This is the reason Obama is at the US emergency headquarters looking like he is in charge. He is not going to repeat George W’s performance. Romney is reminding everyone he did a good job running snow storm disasters in Massachusetts and trying to show how open he is to the needs of all Americans.
Nature has handed both candidates a perfect opportunity to look good. One has to look better to the electorate as they choose someone who will take America through the big fiscal storms ahead.
Ed Blakely is Honorary Professor of Urban Policy, Sydney University. He previously served for two years as Executive Director of the Office of Recovery and Development Administration, the "recovery czar" for New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.