Tornado Warning: Presidents Need Compassion, Competence after Disasters

Obama will try to heed lessons from Clinton and the Bushes.

US President George W. Bush looks out the window of Air Force One 31 August, 2005, as he flies over New Orleans, Louisiana, surveying the damage left by Hurricane Katrina. Returning to Washington from Texas, Air Force One descended to about 5000 feet (1500 meters) to allow Bush to view some of the worst damage from Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the Gulf Coast states of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi on 29 August. The aircraft was to fly low over the cities of New Orleans, Louisiana; Gulfport and Biloxi in Mississippi ; Mobile, Alabama and others before landing in Washington. Bush is scheduled to chair a meeting of a White House hurricane task force here later 31 August. (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
April 28, 2011, 7:50 a.m.

The tor­nadoes that have ripped through the South leav­ing a swath of de­struc­tion and some 200 dead con­front Pres­id­ent Obama with a chal­lenge. After all, nat­ur­al dis­asters tax a pres­id­ent’s ad­min­is­trat­ive, ex­ec­ut­ive, and per­son­al skills. They re­quire the com­mand­er-in-chief to show both com­pas­sion and com­pet­ence at a time when the pub­lic is pay­ing in­tent at­ten­tion and is very quick to judge.

Pres­id­ent Obama surely knows that and that’s why he’s head­ing to the tor­nado zone to­mor­row to in­spect the dam­age, meet with vic­tims, and dis­cuss re­cov­ery ef­forts with state of­fi­cials and Alabama Gov. Robert Bent­ley.

The vis­it is an ac­know­ledge­ment that the pub­lic de­mands that the pres­id­ent show com­pas­sion and em­pathy with the vic­tims. But the First Re­spon­der doesn’t want to get in the way of of­fi­cials on the ground try­ing to res­cue sur­viv­ors, re­store or­der, or save lives. The pub­lic wants the pres­id­ent to back the loc­al of­fi­cials but be ready to take over at the first sign that those of­fi­cials are in over their heads.

And if a pres­id­ent and his ad­min­is­tra­tion are found lack­ing, the polit­ic­al re­tri­bu­tion can be severe. Just ask both Pres­id­ent Bushes.

(PIC­TURES: Storms, Tor­nadoes Dev­ast­ate South)

George H.W. Bush suffered deep and last­ing polit­ic­al wounds in the middle of his reelec­tion cam­paign in 1992 when he was seen as bum­bling the fed­er­al re­sponse to Hur­ricane An­drew after it dev­ast­ated Flor­ida. Off on the cam­paign trail, Bush was slow to re­act and, as Con­gress later un­covered in hear­ings, had filled FEMA with a high­er per­cent­age of polit­ic­al ap­pointees than al­most any oth­er fed­er­al agency.

Story Con­tin­ues Be­low Graph­ic

Par­tic­u­larly sting­ing was the com­plaint seen re­peatedly on TV of Dade County’s emer­gency op­er­a­tions dir­ect­or, Kate Hale, ask­ing, “Where in the hell is the cav­alry on this one? For God’s sake, where are they?”

FEMA was so in­com­pet­ent and clue­less, the pres­id­ent had to ap­point his own hur­ricane task force, headed by Trans­port­a­tion Sec­ret­ary An­drew Card, who him­self was battered in tele­vi­sion in­ter­views.

The les­son was not lost on Bush’s suc­cessor. Pres­id­ent Clin­ton over­hauled FEMA, put an ex­per­i­enced dis­aster ex­pert in charge — James Lee Witt — and ordered an end to the heavy pat­ron­age ap­point­ments at the agency. But Clin­ton did more than just im­prove the bur­eau­cracy; he also ad­ded a hu­man touch that Bush had fallen short on.

(RE­LATED: Obama de­clares state of emer­gency in Alabama)

When flood­ing hit Iowa early in Clin­ton’s pres­id­ency in 1993, the pres­id­ent im­me­di­ately ad­ded a trip to the soaked state where 250,000 people were left without clean wa­ter. The pres­id­ent was seen filling sand­bags and — in an act pho­to­graphed and seen on hun­dreds of front pages — he in­stinct­ively hugged a cry­ing wo­man at a wa­ter dis­tri­bu­tion cen­ter. It gave mean­ing to his of­ten mocked “I feel your pain” per­sona and res­on­ated across the coun­try.

Like Ron­ald Re­agan be­fore him, Clin­ton demon­strated that former gov­ernors tend to re­act to nat­ur­al dis­asters more swiftly and with more com­mand than pres­id­ents who had not dealt with dis­asters in their pre­vi­ous jobs. That was true of Pres­id­ent George W. Bush — at first. Bush was praised for his quick re­sponse to Hur­ricane Char­ley when it hit Flor­ida in 2004. White House of­fi­cials made no at­tempt to hide the fact that they all re­called the cri­ti­cism of Bush’s fath­er after An­drew, es­pe­cially with Card now serving as White House chief of staff.

Asked why he showed up so promptly, Bush seemed to be think­ing of the botched re­sponse to An­drew. “Yeah, if I didn’t come, they would’ve said we should have been here more rap­idly,” he said.

But that les­son deser­ted him when Hur­ricane Kat­rina struck the Gulf Coast the next year. The pres­id­ent did not in­ter­rupt his Texas va­ca­tion quickly enough, did not can­cel a trip to San Diego to de­liv­er a speech on Ir­aq, and did not vis­it the dev­ast­ated re­gion un­til days after the dis­aster. Even worse — as he later ac­know­ledged — was his de­cision to have Air Force One fly over the area with him be­ing pho­to­graphed seem­ing very de­tached as he sur­veyed the dam­age from high above.

It was a double whammy for Bush. He was seen as lack­ing both com­pas­sion and com­pet­ence.

Today, that is the chal­lenge for Pres­id­ent Obama: how to show per­son­al com­pas­sion while mar­shalling the re­sources of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to show com­pet­ence; and how to per­son­ally vis­it the South to con­sole the vic­tims without get­ting in the way of the re­cov­ery ef­forts.

For a pres­id­ent al­tern­ately praised and scol­ded over his cool de­mean­or, how he emotes may be as im­port­ant as wheth­er he does. Earli­er this year, he was widely praised for his words of hope and com­pas­sion for the people of Tuc­son in the wake of the shoot­ing of Rep. Gab­ri­elle Gif­fords, D-Ar­iz. White House aides are no doubt won­der­ing wheth­er their boss can touch the people of Alabama in the same way fol­low­ing their hard­ship.

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