A big storm may be brewing

2012-11-06 14:19

Richard Quest

So now we know all about this election's October Surprise. For the people of New York and New Jersey, superstorm Sandy's impact could hardly have been more profound; the question now is whether it will change the course of the election.

Looking at President Obama in the aftermath of the storm, it is hard to see how Sandy's influence will not be felt. After all, as president, simply going about the business of being in charge will convey the atmosphere of leadership. To look presidential, he just needs to do his job - and his response to this crisis has, on the whole, been well received. Obama is good at looking assured, and America tends to pull together at moments like this.

Romney's position is more awkward. After a brief hiatus in hostilities he is now back to criticising Obama, and he managed to gain traction by turning a rally event into a Sandy fundraiser. You could also argue that the states most affected by Sandy were already going to vote Democrat anyway, so perhaps none of this really matters. But the old maxim trotted out after any president's first term is that you shouldn't change horse midstream; post-Sandy there is a nagging suspicion that thought will now resonate more widely.

In spite of all this, however, the election is not about Sandy; for voters in key states like Ohio, who may be leaning towards Romney, it is hard to say whether the crisis alone will be enough to shift them back towards Obama. The fact is that in every state unaffected by the storm the economy remains the biggest issue, and with good reason.

Listening to the campaign speeches you would think that there is a big gulf between the candidates' economic plans. On taxation that is certainly the case, but elsewhere it is far harder to see daylight between the two men. Romney's slightly nebulous Five Point Plan is focussed on job creation, while Obama points somewhat vaguely to progress and positive signs. For voters, the job figures released today show that the economy’s growth remains sluggish and any sense of optimism is loaded with far too many caveats to take hold.

There is also something else that puts all of this into the shade. Whoever occupies the Oval Office, the New Year will bring with it a crisis that, unlike Sandy, everyone in America knows is coming. It is a perfect storm of the economic rather than meteorological variety - the so-called Fiscal Cliff.

January will see the expiration of the two year extension applied to the Bush administration's tax cuts, and the "sequestration" of the budget cuts relating to the 2011 Budget Control Act - a pungent cocktail of spending reductions and tax increases that could see America's GDP shrink by as much as 4%.

Unlike with Sandy, Congress does have the capacity to steer the country away from this nightmarish scenario. Put simply, however, a deal needs to be done – and deals have not been easy to come by for this President. It may be that Romney, who has talked a lot about his success in forming cross party alliances, can score here.

The President looks at home sorting out the wreckage on the North East coast, and may well be winning hearts in the process. Romney remains popular among the wealthy, and appears to have a decent foothold in some key states. It is still far too close to call.  But whatever Sandy's impact on the election, storm clouds remain on the horizon for America.

- Richard Quest is presenter of CNN's Quest Means Business. In The American Quest, the seasoned journalist gauges the political mood by taking an eight-day train journey across the US ahead of the elections on 6 November. For more info click here.

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