When Sandy crashed into Uncle Sam

In 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain suspended his troubled campaign to return to Washington. A financial disaster was threatening to bring down capitalism itself, the Dow Jones was tanking and both sides of American politics had reached an impasse as to how to solve the crisis.

Four years later, both President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have also suspended their campaigns as Hurricane Sandy hurtles towards a cluster of states in the north-east corner of the US.

The closure of the New York Stock Exchange – the first unscheduled shutdown since September 11 – is an event that, quite simply, makes international trading patterns unrecognisable. It underlines the significance of this climatic event that’s hitting the US at a time of high political division, as well as New York’s enduring status as the world’s financial centre.

You can see the impact on Manhattan beyond Wall Street. The formidable public transport system that normally whisks American citizens and tourists across the Big Apple through all hours of the night has been completely shut down. The show does not go on for Broadway tonight, all performances have been cancelled for Monday and Tuesday.

The city that never sleeps is at least a bit groggy this evening.

Assuming Sandy – who’s particularly dangerous because she’s colliding with a cold front – stays on her expected path, the states that are going to cop it tonight are Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania. Parts of North Carolina, Virginia, Connecticut and Massachusetts are also in for a rough evening.

Both candidates have cancelled events with just eight days until the election is held. The impact come polling day could be as random as the destruction that will ensue this evening and in the days to come. But, broadly speaking, the political aftermath will be divided into two categories.

Firstly, the relative success or failure of the government-led emergency response will be transferred to Obama in some small way. If the damage is really bad and the response, which has actually been underway for several days, is really good it could prove to be a boost for the president.

But given the economic focus of this election campaign, sound crisis management from Obama probably won’t secure him a second term. The chronically unemployed will still be unemployed once the storm passes… unless they‘re skilled in construction.

Secondly, there’s the extent to which the ‘Frankenstorm’ disrupts voting systems. The two states in Sandy’s path that could seriously influence the final outcome of the election are Pennsylvania and Virginia. At the moment, the former is a toss up and the latter is leaning towards the Democrats.

Over the next few days, both the campaigns will have to play a couple of delicate balancing acts. When do they shift from hurricane aftermath back to electioneering? How much do they politicise a natural disaster?

You can already see this ‘crisis of narrative’ playing out on the cable TV channels. The content has become more and more political as the day has progressed.

As this column was written, American civil rights legend and Baptist Minister Al Sharpton was leading a discussion on the left-leaning MSNBC about Romney’s stance on the Federal Emergency Management Agency FEMA, which failed so spectacularly during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Meanwhile, over at the relentlessly right-leaning Fox News Network (owned by News Corp, the parent company of this website) host Brett Baier was directing a debate over how advantageous it is for Obama to look so ‘presidential’ during a national crisis. The talking heads peppered the discussion with pot shots at the president’s crisis management skills in the Middle East, with little regard for obvious comparisons with his predecessor.

All of this is in pretty poor taste. Tonight’s events could lead to fatalities. Reports indicate that Sandy killed at least 69 people in the Caribbean before heading up America’s east coast.

But this is what the cable channels are designed for – disasters and elections. That’s another collision that’s taking place this evening.

Alexander Liddington-Cox is Business Spectator’s North America Correspondent.

Note from writer: Thanks for all the well wishes from family, friends, and colleagues at Business Spectator.

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