The Politics of Presidential Visits to Disaster Areas

On September 10, 1965, Louisiana Senator Russell Long called President Lyndon Johnson following the devastation of Hurricane Betsy.  Since then political parties, pundits, candidates and the American people have used disasters for political opportunity.  Senator Long told the newly elected Johnson that having lost Louisiana to Goldwater, he could solidify that state for the Democrats just by showing up and telling the people he cared.  You would win next time “even if they ran Eisenhower” said a persuasive Senator Long.  LBJ was on Air Force One within hours, touring New Orleans.

Every disaster inherently involves politics – a governor, two U.S. Senators, at least one U.S. Congressman, and one President.  It is that latter’s “bully pulpit” that everyone covets.  Get a President to your disaster and his coattails might extend to you. 

This week President Obama will visit Louisiana, but only after completing his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard.  Republicans and conservatives (and probably some Democrats, privately) have excoriated him for not visiting.  But we should draw a fine line between a President and his entourage visiting a disaster site, and a President acknowledging the plight of disaster victims who are looking anywhere for solace, assistance and support.

My old boss President George W. Bush was lambasted by the media and the Democrats for failing to land in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August, 2005.  Even I criticized his decision to make a “fly-over” that resulted in the now-infamous White House photograph of President Bush eyeing the New Orleans devastation from the comfort of Air Force One. 

I had made every effort to persuade him to land in Baton Rouge, 78 miles from the epicenter of the media’s focus on Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.  Baton Rouge was perfect for three reasons.  It was away from the on-going response effort in New Orleans and would not disrupt the mini-air traffic control system we had in place for the multitude of helicopters and rescue boats triaging victims.  It would also allow the President to use that bully pulpit of the Presidency to tell all the victims, first responders, nonprofits and the nation, that the President was aware of the disaster.  The response in Louisiana was muddled at that point due to the lack of a unified command structure in Louisiana.  His presence might have reversed that problem. 

But most importantly, having the President walk down the steps of Air Force One to a podium covered by the Seal of the President of the United States would have been his opportunity to get something done I was unable to do – get the attention of every cabinet secretary that Hurricane Katrina was a priority of the President and to give his FEMA Director every asset or resource he requested.

But in the Louisiana floods, the mechanisms of government, the private sector, citizens and nonprofits were working together as they should.  Louisiana didn’t need the President to step to that podium as I did.  Even the governor of Louisiana initially asked President Obama to put off his visit until the response phase of the disaster had passed.

So President Obama dispatched his Secretary of Homeland Security and FEMA Director to Louisiana – as he should have.  But that wasn’t enough to stop the politics, pundits and others from screeching at every opportunity about comparisons between Bush/Katrina and Obama/Louisiana.

Those comparisons are wrong and conservatives and Republicans only further the politicization of disasters by clamoring for their moment of retribution for Obama’s refusal to come off the golf course.  So let’s make a fine distinction between coming off the golf course and a President making a visit to a disaster zone. 

In every disaster I handled for the Bush Administration, the White House always sought my advice about when and where to visit a disaster.  They knew that during the response phase of a disaster a Presidential visit would disrupt that response – the purpose of which is to save lives and prevent further damage to property.  The presence of the President takes valuable resources away from that response because of the massive logistics inherent to any visit by a President – an advance team, Secret Service requirements, first responders taken away from their duties.  In the response phase of a disaster the last disruption you want is a Presidential visit.

So President Obama was right to not visit Louisiana while lives were being saved. 

Does that mean his actions during the initial response phase of the Louisiana flooding was proper?  Or politically smart?  Absolutely not. 

He should have at least walked away from the golf course, put on a suit or a jacket, and stepped to a microphone behind the Seal of the President of the United States and told the people of Louisiana that he was monitoring the situation, had dispatched his Secretary of Homeland Security and FEMA Director, and that any federal resources needed by the state were being made available through his Presidential Disaster Declaration. 

He could have told them and the public that he would visit as soon as it could be done without disrupting the coordinated response of federal, state and local officials.  (He could have also mentioned the 80,000 people in San Bernardino County, CA, whose lives had also been disrupted by wildfires at the same time as the Louisiana flooding.)

That simple gesture would have de-politicized the situation while acknowledging the fate of those suffering in Louisiana.  It would have taken the politics off the table.

So for those always clamoring for a political advantage in a disaster, perhaps they should stop and think about what a Presidential visit will cost in terms of resources taken away from responding to a disaster.  Senator Long told LBJ that if he just came to Louisiana and talked about the levees that Hale Boggs and he had had built, that those levees probably saved 5000 lives, LBJ would be a hero.  He went.  And he was a hero. 

Politics is a noble profession.  And disasters will always involve politics despite what the professional emergency managers tell you.  But the public needs to know that Presidents as “Comforters in Chief” have a time and a place to fulfill that role. 

It is not while people are being rescued and lives saved.