President Barack Obama resumed a swing state campaign trip today as Hurricane Isaac battered the Gulf Coast, forcing him to switch between his official duties and his role as a candidate for re-election.
The storm, hitting the coast on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and as Republicans hold their national convention, complicates Obama’s plans leading up to his own party’s gathering next week.
“It’s very tricky,” said political historian Julian Zelizer of Princeton University in New Jersey, referring to the balancing act Obama must now play between his roles as candidate and president.
“If disaster relief is required, Obama has some risk going around the country looking as though he’s focused on November 2012 instead of August,” Zelizer said.
Opening his campaign rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, today, Obama asked the crowd to keep the people living along the Gulf Coast in their thoughts and prayers and promised that the federal government is “doing every single thing we need to do to make sure our friends down there are taken care of.”
Between events yesterday and today, Obama has conferred with homeland security officials and gotten frequent updates on the storm’s progress and relief efforts, White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
Isaac, with winds extending 175 miles (282 kilometers) from its center, is pounding parts of southern Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama with torrential rain and storm surges. It may produce as much as 20 inches of rain during the next two days, according to the National Hurricane Center.
The White House hasn’t announced whether Obama will travel to the region.
“At this time, the president’s schedule has not changed,” Carney told reporters this morning.
The storm also is hitting as energy prices are putting pressure on a still sluggish U.S. economy. Companies halted 93 percent of oil production in the Gulf of Mexico and 67 percent of natural-gas output as Isaac neared the Louisiana coast, according to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
Crude oil for October delivery declined 84 cents to settle at $95.49 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The Energy Department said earlier that U.S. crude stockpiles increased 3.78 million barrels to 364.5 million and the threat to offshore platforms and rigs abated.
Oil has advanced 23 percent since reaching a 2012 low in June as stockpiles fell and the U.S. and Europe tightened sanctions against Iran. Rising prices have raised speculation that Obama may release supplies from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
The last release was in June 2011 in conjunction with International Energy Agency nations to replace supplies lost during the uprising in Libya.
The U.S. joined other Group of Seven nations in a joint statement yesterday calling on oil-producing countries to increase output to ease the threat to their economies posed by high oil prices and saying they are prepared to prod the IEA “to take appropriate action to ensure that the market is fully and timely supplied.”
Carney repeated earlier statements that “all options are on the table” regarding oil prices.
“We are, of course, constantly monitoring global energy prices, global oil prices and their effect on the global economy,” Carney said as Obama traveled to Virginia. “But I have no announcements for actions that he might take.”
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said Obama “should be able to campaign without penalty,” as long as there is no evidence the federal government is failing to provide hurricane relief and Obama clearly communicates the government’s response.
After mentioning the storm at the start of his remarks, Obama returned to the political pitch he made at previous stops in Iowa and Colorado. He emphasized issues that the campaign calculates will appeal to young voters -- developing alternative energy, aiding education and supporting same-sex marriage -- while accusing Republican nominee Mitt Romney of being out of touch.
“You guys have more at stake in this election than anybody,” Obama told the mostly young crowd of about 7,000 in Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia.
Campaigning in a time of crisis can backfire, depending on how severe the hurricane proves to be, said Zelizer, who has studied past U.S. administrations.
One example, he said, is President George H. W. Bush’s response to Hurricane Andrew, which hit Florida in August 1992.
“The Bush administration was very slow to respond, and I think he took a lot of heat for that,” Zelizer said. “It contributed to this narrative of a stumbling leader who didn’t have a grasp on domestic issues.”
Bush lost the election that November to Democrat Bill Clinton.