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Sandy has Changed the Terms of the US Debate

Posted: 02/11/2012 13:46

Barack Obama Hurricane

I'm spending the last few days of the US Campaign in Washington and New York.

Washington - politically becalmed. New York - the eye of this storm.

While all my travels plans have been working fine [Amtrak is returning to normal today on the Washington to New York line] - but the lives and hopes of millions of ordinary Americans have been thrown into chaos.

There is a death toll which is truly horrendous in modern times and over 4m Americans still don't have basic power supplies. Gas is in short demand, insurance claims are building and the costs are $60bn and counting.

While this terrible calamity has shown the fragility of the world's biggest economy - its political effects are already coming to the fore.

Rather than hurt the President - Hurricane Sandy seems to be playing right into his hands.

Of course the optics of Air Force One, the Situation Room and the Seals of Office can play a mighty important hand to anyone who holds them. Sandy looks like being the second most expensive hurricane to hit the US since Katrina in 2005 - which cost $108bn - and George W Bush even more of his already battered reputation.

By contrast the President's polling satisfaction rate on Sandy is 78% with just 8% saying he has handled the crisis badly.

Of course so close to polling day it remains an almost futile exercise to predict the final outcome. The polls continue to be genuinely close.

But for me the key thing is that Sandy has brought front and centre political issues which have not reared themselves in the campaign up until now. Climate change impacts and America's eroding 1950s and 1960s infrastructure - Democratic talking points.

A Hudson River barrier like the Thames barrier in London is now firmly on the agenda.

Mayor Bloomberg has come off the fence for Obama on both of these issues in a way he didn't need to do but felt compelled to do post the storm.

Sandy may reduce US output by 0.5% in the current quarter according to current estimates. But 2013 may prove to be a boon for the battered US construction sector. According to the US Department of Commerce the sector has slumped from 4.3% of GDP in 2008 to 3.4% in 2011.

So calamity brings opportunity and the American people remain so inventive and entrepreneurial. Its the reason I love coming here.

While election turnout in the states hit hardest by the storm is being affected - already early voting - traditionally a help to Democrats is down. But most of the states affected are heavily Democratic in any case.

So Sandy has changed the terms of the debate. Despite a lacklustre campaign until this week I reckon its the President who gets gets the most benefit. He has found his voice.

 

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