President Obama comes to work, conducts a few conference calls on Hurricane Sandy, holds a press conference, and later travels to New Jersey to survey the damage caused by the storm. In doing so, he performs a job expected of him as president.
But does this qualify, as the Washington Post declared today, as Obama’s “commander-in-chief moment”? Did the president really pivot “from candidate to commander-in-chief,” as the Huffington Post says?
Not at all. The ever-friendly media are rushing to the aid of Obama on an issue where he needs all the help he can get. Obama lacks credibility as commander in chief – that is, as boss of the military. And it’s a problem for him in his bid for a second term in next Tuesday’s election.
The killing of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, in Benghazi, Libya, only made matters worse for the president on exactly this issue. Two of the Americans were killed after at least three reported requests for military support were not acted on. Asked last week by a Denver TV reporter if requests were denied, Obama couldn’t answer. “We are finding out exactly what happened,” he said.
But apparently not yet. One of the few answers from White House came two days later when an Obama aide said neither the president nor his staff “had denied any requests for assistance.” What role did Obama actually play? We haven’t been told.
Handling a natural disaster like Sandy is nothing like deciding whether to deploy military forces. The important people in Sandy’s case are state governors, not the president. They make most of the critical decisions and provide leadership on the ground. The president doesn’t, though he visited storm-ravaged New Jersey on Wednesday.
That doesn’t elevate him to commander in chief in this case – quite the contrary. It means he’s dealing with a civilian disaster as any president would. Not to quibble, but Article 2, section 2, of the Constitution says the president “shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia off the several states.” It doesn’t say he is “commander in chief of FEMA.”
Obama is fortunate to be dealing with capable Republican governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bob McDonnell of Virginia, both of whom praised him for helping out. In 2005, President Bush wasn’t so lucky when Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana. Bush had to collaborate with a governor and a mayor, both incompetents. Nonetheless, Bush got the blame for their poor reaction to the storm.