President Obama reviewed Isaac's projected landfall on Monday and calculated the fallout of a truncated Republican National Convention and his own campaign schedule — sifting ways to maximize the advantages of governing while milking the political gains of a rival party mired in split-screen storm misery.
No adjustments were made to Obama's campaign schedule for Tuesday; stops in Ames, Iowa, and Fort Collins, Colo., remain set. A Wednesday jaunt to Charlottesville, Va., may fall prey to Obama's desire to appear presidential in the face of Isaac's landfall, though. Campaign officials said Obama was monitoring Isaac's path "hour-by-hour" and would adjust his campaign schedule as needed. The campaign has also told surrogates and the Democratic National Committee to hold their anti-GOP fire until the Republicans launch their convention in full on Tuesday.
Even so, Democrats took delight in poking the GOP for Isaac-related comments from Republicans in Tampa — like those from Ted Cruz, the Senate nominee from Texas, and Rep. Darrell Issa of California — that seemed to minimize Isaac's threat to the Gulf.
All options were on the table at the White House as Obama received the second Isaac briefing in as many days from Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Richard Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center. White House and campaign officials noted the delicate optics for Obama but also the potential opportunities unique to a sitting president during the GOP convention.
While Republicans had to game-plan any number of scenarios, Obama had two choices: campaign or preside over the federal emergency disaster response. Neither conflicted with goals of governance or politics, and either might enhance his short-term standing nationally or in swing states. If Isaac peters out and Obama keeps campaigning, he loses no time on the trail and still benefits from the general sense of being in charge at a moment of crisis.
If Obama cancels stump appearances to monitor Isaac's progress and adjust federal preparations/responses, he gains the incumbent's built-in advantage of crisis management. And Obama can fly to any storm-ravaged area if he sees fit before his own convention in Charlotte. He could also order the Democratic National Committee to transform parts of that convention into a fundraising endeavor for storm victims. The GOP could also try to leverage its Tampa convention into a pre-disaster fundraiser, but Obama's choices appear, by sheer coincidence, easier to navigate in terms of timing and outreach.
That Isaac is barreling toward New Orleans and by itself evokes painful memories of Katrina and George W. Bush's much-criticized federal response is also not lost on the White House or Obama's reelection campaign. But Obama backers are content to let this theme rise on its own. In numerous interviews, advisers said all Obama will stress in the coming days is keeping lines of communication open with states in Isaac's path and, if necessary, pre-positioning federal assets. The Katrina story lines will inject themselves into coverage and need no Obama-style seeding, aides said.
Late Monday, before the storm hit, Obama declared a state of emergency in Louisiana effective Sunday. This allows the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA to take actions in advance to assist in evacuation and preparation efforts and to provide a federal reimbursement rate of 75 percent for emergency actions.
Obama spoke by phone to Republican Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Robert Bentley of Alabama, and Phil Bryant of Mississippi. Jindal canceled his planned trip to the GOP convention; Bentley had canceled on Saturday and issued mandatory evacuation orders for Mobile and Baldwin counties. Jindal also issued emergency evacuation orders.
All three governors urged residents to take Isaac seriously, warning that the tropical storm could rapidly develop into a hurricane and inflict sizable wind and storm-surge damage throughout the Gulf Coast. Obama also spoke with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, a fellow Democrat, though the danger of the city taking a direct hit was still unclear.
The president's campaign was also preparing to remind voters that presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., would impose, according to budget analysts, a 22 percent cut in domestic discretionary accounts like FEMA's starting in 2014. The Obama campaign is also eager to revisit fights waged last year when FEMA funding was jeopardized during a fight with House Republicans over offsetting a $1 billion short-term boost in emergency-management funding with spending cuts.
In short, Obama will pivot off of Isaac as circumstances dictate. His options are more limited than Republicans' but less fraught with political risk.