Obama an unexpected opportunity to restore at least a measure of public trust and goodwill at a time when being a part of the federal government has threatened to become a political millstone.
Disaster relief is one area where a large majority of voters endorse and expect a vigorous federal response.
"This is not over," Obama said Sunday afternoon as the storm battered New England. Standing in the sunny Rose Garden at the White House, where winds blew gale force overnight, the shirt-sleeved president called the handling of the disaster "an exemplary effort of how good government at every level should be responsive to people's needs."
Obama and several politicians with possible White House designs of their own faced that challenge last week: to avoid repeating President George W. Bush's mistake in 2005 of appearing disengaged from the government response to an impending natural disaster.
The day before Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana, Bush participated in a pre-storm briefing from his Crawford, Texas, ranch. He asked no questions and later pronounced that the government was "fully prepared."
By contrast, Obama flew back to Washington from his rented vacation house the night before Hurricane Irene hit the mainland. He had already delivered public warnings and signed disaster declarations for the affected states before the storm arrived, part of a system put in place after Katrina.
Shortly after the eye of the storm came ashore, Obama visited the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster command headquarters in Washington. FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate made a point of saying in national TV interviews Sunday that officials in Washington had reached out to their counterparts at local and state levels in an unprecedented effort to limit the loss of life.
"The big lessons after Katrina is we all have to work as a team," said Fugate, whose agency employed the term "federal family," instead of federal government, in news releases related to storm preparations.
But criticism will come if the administration stumbles in its efforts to get life back to normal. Already, Republican lawmakers in Congress have taken shots at the administration for not submitting an emergency funding request for FEMA, another issue that will become part of Washington's larger, and often rancorous, spending debate.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, regarded as a future Republican presidential candidate, praised the coordination between Washington and his state. FEMA officials, he said on NBC, are "working incredibly hard in providing things to us that we need."
That the storm did not reach the more dire dimensions that had been forecast prompted some second-guessing about the ordering of massive evacuations. But Christie said there would have been a "significant loss of life" if as many as 1 million people had not left the Jersey shore ahead of the high wind, heavy rain and tidal surges.
Two other officials often mentioned as future presidential contenders — New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo — also directed the mandatory evacuation of thousands of shoreline residents. The mayor, whose reputation suffered damage when he was out of town and appeared out of touch during a huge snowstorm last winter, ordered an unprecedented shutdown of New York's mass transit system, effectively closing much of the city's commerce for the weekend.
Up and down the East Coast, as life returned to normal for millions of unaffected residents, there were inevitable complaints — from those who lost business as a result of government action, as well as from those merely inclined to see this as one more topic for the country's polarized political discussion.
"The trend in our country is to call in the feds or the state for any problem," said Brad Davidson, a businessman and self-described libertarian in Annapolis, Md. "But for most of the life of this country, we have been rugged individualists, relying on our wits. That's a healthier attitude."
Annapolis writer Iris B. Krasnow, an Obama backer who was among those at the Metropolitan Kitchen and Lounge drinking coffee and swapping storm stories Sunday, expressed the opposite view.
"If this is what it means to live in the nanny state, I'm very content," Krasnow said. "As the mother of four kids, I am pleased the state issued warnings to stay off the streets, to get out of flood-prone areas and said, 'If you can't get out, we'll help you.' "
She said during a hurricane was the time when you wanted an active government: "There is debris everywhere. The phone lines and electric lines are down. I'll take all the help I can get during this type of situation."