President Obama on Monday warned Americans in the path of Hurricane Sandy not to ignore the threat of the "big and powerful storm," telling them to heed warnings from local leaders about how to stay safe in coming hours.

"Please listen to what your state and local officials are saying," Obama said from the White House briefing room. "When they tell you to evacuate, you need to evacuate."

(See a photo gallery of storm images and follow the latest updates from the Examiner)

The potentially historic hurricane brought the presidential campaign to a screeching halt Monday, as both the president and Republican Mitt Romney canceled scheduled appearances in battleground states through Tuesday.

"The election will take care of itself next week," Obama said. "Right now our number one priority is that we're saving lives."

(Watch storm videos from the D.C. region and the latest videos from around the country)

The center of the storm is expected to make landfall along the East Coast on Monday evening and could leave millions without power.

Preaching patience, the president said, "The public should anticipate that there's going to be a lot of power outages and it may take time to get that power back on."

Whatever the storm brings, the president said, the nation will rebound.

"The great thing about America is when we go through times like this, we all pull together," he said, adding that in times of crisis, "we look out for friends, neighbors. We set aside whatever issues we have otherwise to make sure we respond appropriately."