How Hurricane Sandy Gives Obama a Chance To Show How Much He Cares

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 29 2012 9:32 PM

The 2012 Campaign Decoder

Hurricane Sandy gives Obama a chance to show how much he cares.    

Sorting the presidential campaign's gaffes, antics, and false controversies from the stuff that actually matters.

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Seminar Topic

As a policy matter, it's serious stuff. But it's not likely going to catch a spark out on the campaign trail.

Campaign Wound

This matters. Expect it to come up again and again.

Shiny Object

It gets a lot of coverage but doesn't have a chance to change the campaign. Pure distraction.

Junk Food

People may not think it's important, but the campaigns are treating it carefully. Damage control.

Campaign Events

Hurricane Sandy 20/20

Junk Food – Hurricane Sandy interrupted the presidential campaign but didn't really pause it. The emergency conditions offer the president an opportunity. He can appear in command and on the case. For a campaign that has been about answering the question "Who cares about you?," President Obama can actually convey that sentiment in a high-stakes moment. Also, for a man presenting himself as a defender of the necessary role of government, this disaster reminds people how much government matters in American life. Mitt Romney has few options but to ride the storm out.

Obama: Killing of diplomats 'not optimal' 10/19

Junk Food – When Jon Stewart said that the killing of four Americans in Benghazi was "not optimal," President Obama should not have repeated the phrase—even if he was thinking that the sophisticated Stewart audience would get that they were using the antiseptic term in jest. No one would be stupid enough to refer to the death of four people as "not optimal." The person who really wouldn't be stupid enough to do that is a politician who had emoted so forcefully about how much he cared about those who had died in the line of duty. That guy would definitely not be that dumb. And yet that's what the president did. This will rile Republicans, but it is unlikely to move undecided voters, who aren't focused on Libya anyway.

The Des Moines abortion wiggle 10/10

Junk Food – Mitt Romney, in an interview with the Des Moines Register, appeared to say that he wasn't going to actively restrict abortion rights as president. But he left himself enough loopholes to fulfill every promise he has made to pro-life groups. Nimble! To become an issue, Democrats will have to ignore the loopholes, embrace it as a flip-flop, and say it's just another example of Mitt switching positions to get elected—which fits their larger claim that Romney can't be trusted.

The War on Big Bird 10/10

Shiny Object – President Obama and his campaign are ridiculing Mitt Romney's claim at the first debate that he would defund PBS and hand a pink slip to its star performer Big Bird. It's a super tiny reduction in government spending given his other big plans for cutting taxes and increasing defense spending. But the claim of paltry poultry, while catchy, doesn't do Obama much good. Democrats say Romney is talking about Big Bird and not what he really wants to cut. But to hit back, the president needs a catchy line that encapsulates his larger critique of Romney's dishonesty about his plans.

Biden's $1 Trillion Tax Increase 10/5

Junk Food – When Joe Biden said that the Obama administration wanted to raise taxes by $1 trillion dollars, the Romney campaign pounced on it as a gaffe. Alas, for five years Obama has been campaigning on raising the tax rate on top earners when the Bush era tax cuts expire. He even made a big deal about it in the debate the night before.

Romney's '47 percent' comments 9/17

Campaign Wound – Romney's comments about the 47 percent. Danger Will Robinson! If Romney really is trying to woo those independent voters he mentioned in the surreptitiously recorded video, this candid moment in which Romney wrote off half the electorate as moochers created a new obstacle.

After Middle East protests, Romney criticizes Obama 9/11

Campaign Wound – In the wake of the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens, Romney attacks Obama over his Middle East policy. Polls showed that voters did not approve of Romney's quick criticism of the president. Even Republicans who shared his sentiment about the president's weak foreign policy thought the timing was off.

Romney refuses to release tax records 7/20

Junk Food – Romney repeatedly refuses to release his tax records. A wide swath of voters have had a hard time finding something to like about Romney. They also don't find him authentic. The refusal to release tax returns did not help dispel people's fears that he had something to hide.

Obama: 'You didn't build that' 7/13

Campaign Wound – At a rally, Obama utters the words "you didn't build that." Republicans nourished themselves on this line for weeks. Even if no independent voters were turned off by the remarks, it was a successful turnout mechanism for the GOP. For Republicans, the line-even if taken partially out of context-confirmed everything they thought about the president.

Supreme Court OKs Obamacare 6/28

Seminar Topic – The Supreme Court backs Obamacare. This was a huge policy victory for the president and anyone who has benefited from the Affordable Care Act. For conservatives, it prompted outrage over Chief Justice John Roberts, their former darling. The Supreme Court backs Obamacare. It gave Romney a rallying cry: Only by electing him could Republicans do away with the awful law.

Booker criticizes Obama ads on Bain 5/21

Junk Food – On Meet the Press, campaign surrogate Cory Booker criticized Obama's TV ads about Romney's time at Bain. Voters like Obama, even if they don't think he is doing the best job. That may be because he still reminds them of the hopeful candidate of 2008. So Booker's charge--that Obama was acting like any other politician--had the potential to damage the president's brand. Obama officials quickly convinced the mayor to clean up his remarks.

In high school Romney bullied gay student 5/10

Shiny Object – Revelations of Romney's high-school bullying. This had no policy impact. But the fact that the candidate never offered his own youth story is one of the curious features of his campaign. The bullying story didn't hurt him, but he didn't give voters his own narrative, which may explain why people have had trouble warming to him.

Obama supports gay marriage rights 5/9

Seminar Topic – Obama speaks out in favor of gay marriage rights. The policy impact was minimal. The president was simply expressing a preference, though his remarks may have inched the culture forward toward accepting same sex unions. Politically, it pleased a very important Democratic constituency, and generated a lot of cash.

Obama: I 'wasn't born with a silver spoon' 4/19

Shiny Object – At a rally, Obama reminded voters that he "wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth." The response from Romney fans was that the president was talking about their man. It was pure umbrage taking. But Obama's words are one of his stock phrases. He's been saying it long before Romney was a candidate.

Democratic strategist on Ann Romney: she's 'never worked a hard day' 4/12

Junk Food – The Hilary Rosen kerfuffle. The Democratic strategist said Ann Romney had "never worked a day in her life." The Obama team threw Rosen under the bus and then rented a few more buses to complete the job. Obama's chief strategist and campaign manager denounced her comments, and Ann Romney delighted in being able to play the aggrieved party. In the end, it didn't help Romney's standing with women. He still trails.

Obama to Medvedev: 'more flexibility' after election 3/26

Seminar Topic – Obama assured then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev he would have "more flexibility" to cut foreign policy deals after the election. Romney suggested that this sidelines deal making proved that Obama wasn't being straight with the public. It never went anywhere, but it was an important moment. It reminded us that despite the election's focus on the economy, it is in foreign policy where a president's flexibility can really matter.

Romney's campaign like 'Etch-a-Sketch' 3/21

Shiny Object – "It's almost like an Etch-a-Sketch." When a senior staffer compared the candidate's campaign to the popular toy, it seemed to confirm the charge that Mitt Romney truly had no core beliefs. And for a couple of days the GOP primary went insane. Rick Santorum was seen clutching the toy. Romney didn't overreact-and the controversy never caught on the way the toy did.

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Chris Kirk is Slate's interactives editor. Follow him on Twitter.