The management challenge of disaster response
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.
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.
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.
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.