After rounds of criticism during his recent vacation, President Obama is visiting flood-ravaged Louisiana. His critics like to point out the number of rounds of golf he’s played as the Bayou State has encountered what can only be called a flooding of near Biblical proportions. His supporters point to the fact that LA Governor John Bel Edwards asked him to essentially stay away so that public safety and law enforcement resources could be better used helping those displaced by the flood waters. So let’s give this a bit of perspective.
Presidential visits, regardless of the occasion, are Herculean exercises that require immense mobilization of resources, especially law enforcement and emergency services personnel. While they make for great photo ops, they are often a huge distraction and tax on resources, personnel and logistics that could be better spent working in response and recovery operations. I give Gov. Edwards a lot of credit asking the President to stay put because he already has an overburdened and exhausted state that has had weeks of floodwaters. And based on some of the weather forecasts I’ve seen, they could be getting even more water headed their way.
That said, the disparity in the coverage between then-President Bush and Hurricane Katrina and President Obama and this situation is glaring. As much as the American Presidency is about power, it is also about public optics. While it may have been 11 years ago, I cannot recall President Bush setting foot on a golf course during that disaster. What I do recall, being at DHS at the time (as well as being deployed to Louisiana to support response and recovery efforts), was the White House being briefed several times a day about what was happening on the ground around the region. The Bush White House made a concerted effort to show that he was attuned to the situation on the ground.
In contrast, the Obama White House has said the President has been kept apprised of the situation, had spoken to the LA Governor, but it seemed they made no effort to show photos of the President being briefed by staff or even doing video conferences with folks on the ground. That is very telling to me, especially in the coverage of both situations.
President Obama has made no secret for his distaste of the theater optics of the presidency, but while running for President, he certainly went out of his way in criticizing his predecessor for not going down to the Gulf Coast for an early hands-on assessment of the response and recovery operations during Hurricane Katrina. That certainly bugged me. It bugged me that the last time he was on vacation and a video of an American being beheaded by ISIL was released, he made a quick announcement from a briefing room saying he was angry about it and walked out of the room and immediately headed back to the golf course. That was not one of his finest hours, and he later said he regretted doing that because it didn’t look good.
I don’t begrudge the President his “down time,” but when all the cameras are on your every step and breath, I would hope the President (or his staff) would think through the upcoming steps and breaths so as to balance optics with genuine message delivery and reinforced optics. That’s hard to do, but when you are President of the United States, it really, really matters.
The other thing President Obama has that President Bush did not have was a LA Governor who has their head in the game. Then-LA Gov. Kathleen Blanco and then-New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin could not have been more obstructionist to each other and what FEMA and the National Guard had tried to do before Hurricane Katrina came ashore, and even afterwards. Both seemed to make each step in response and recover more difficult and arduous. The truth is that Hurricane Katrina was a COLOSSAL failure of state and local government, and FEMA was made the fall guy for much of their ineptitude and incompetence. History is finally writing and recording that story, but the media, public, and many folks made FEMA and President Bush the fall guys for much of what failed during Katrina. FEMA and Bush certainly weren’t perfect, but they deserved more credit than they got and were unfairly tarnished as a result.
In regards to the current circumstance in flood ravaged Louisiana, I think Gov. Edwards made the right call in asking the President to delay his visit, but I do wish the Obama White House had made more of an effort to convey that he has had a more hands-on approach than what we have seen the past week or so. To the Obama team’s credit, it helps that when you have a guy as good as FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate running the nation’s emergency management operations. The FEMA of today is not the FEMA of Katrina. It has more resources, training, and skills than it has ever had before, and the White House knows they have the right guy doing what needs to be done. Furthermore, if Fugate needs something, he will let them know.
There is one more important point—every disaster is a political situation. Be it big or small, elected officials want to do whatever they can to make things right. Whether out of sense of public service or receipt of ego-polishing public accolades, they want to get things fixed and back to normal. Pick up any newspaper or read any online article about a small or large fire, a flood, a tornado or whatever cause, and you will see the names of big town and small town elected officials front and center trying to do their part to lead response and recovery efforts. Regardless of how much or how little they do, the critics of those elected officials will always find something to pick on. That is what critics do—they point out faults. Sometimes their points are accurate in detailing shortcomings; other times it’s just sour grapes. But not every disaster lends itself to national coverage. Disasters occur every day in this country and around the world, and the truth is you hear very little about it. You just hear about epic scale ones, or the ones that have captured video footage that acquires a viral life in today’s digital world.
The epic flooding in Louisiana, much like the epic fires in California that are raging now, deserve to be covered for any number of newsworthy reasons. That coverage can help mobilize public responses in disaster support, needed donations and volunteer support. It can also mobilize people to assess their own family’s preparedness and take some steps to ensure it.
If there is anything that people in Louisiana (as well as California) need right now, it is donations to the American Red Cross and other worthy charities that can provide direct assistance to the displaced families affected by the flood waters and fires. I’d love to see the critics spend more time exalting those issues.