By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Monday urged East Coast residents in the path of Hurricane Sandy to heed evacuation orders and assured them the government was ready to respond swiftly, but he warned them it would take a long time to clean up in the storm's aftermath.
Scrapping campaign plans to return to Washington, Obama sought to show voters just eight days before the November 6 election that he was giving top priority to his presidential duties in a looming national crisis, rather than his bid for re-election in a tight race.
He also appeared determined to demonstrate that his administration had learned the lessons of White House predecessor George W. Bush's botched handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which inflicted serious political damage.
Rushing back from a campaign visit to Florida, Obama huddled with top aides in the White House Situation Room for an update on Hurricane Sandy, which started to batter the densely populated East Coast as one of the biggest storms to ever hit the U.S. mainland.
It was forecast to move ashore Monday night in New Jersey as what Obama called a "big and powerful storm" whose slow-moving course would affect millions of people.
With Sandy expected to bring massive flooding, power outages and other disruptions all along the Atlantic coast, Obama seemed mindful of the political risk of disgruntled storm victims on the cusp of the election, and he appealed in advance for patience.
"I'm confident that we're ready, but I think the public needs to prepare for the fact that this is going to take a long time for us to clean up," he said. "The good news is we will clean up and we will get through this."
Obama has tried to draw a sharp contrast with the Bush administration, which was heavily criticized for its slow and inept handling of Katrina as the hurricane devastated New Orleans early in his second term.
He has also sought to project the image of a president fully engaged in marshaling resources to deal with a looming national emergency. Bush was widely seen as out-of-touch during the Katrina crisis.
Obama faces political danger if the federal government's response goes awry in the final days of the election campaign, but he also has a chance to look presidential compared with his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.
Obama had blunt words for those in Sandy's path.
"When they tell you to evacuate, you need to evacuate. Do not delay. Don't pause," he said. "Don't question the instructions that are being given, because this is a serious storm and it could potentially have fatal consequences."
Already looking to the problems likely to crop up after the storm that could become an issue before Election Day, Obama said:.
"The public should anticipate that there's going to be a lot of power outages and it may take time for that power to get back on.
"The same is true with transportation; there are going to be a lot of backlogs. And even after the storm has cleared, it's going to take a considerable amount of time for airlines, subways, trains, and so forth, potentially, to get back, you know, on schedule."
(Additional reporting by Margaret Chadbourn; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)