But this is a relatively new role for presidents, one that reflects not just the emphasis on an ability to communicate and express empathy, but also an increase in power to direct the federal government to assist in recovery. This evolving role is complicated by a number of factors, the most significant being the delicate deliberations required inside the White House after each tragic event about whether it requires the president to show up in person.
“I think the presence of the president has become a visible symbol of the presence of the American people, of their love and their concern and their prayers,” says Karen Hughes, who served as a top adviser to President George W. Bush. “And so the president goes to a site like Ground Zero or the Oklahoma tornado both to say the American people are here with you and also to say to the people there that the resources of the nation are behind you. And I think there’s become an expectation that that will happen.”
That expectation has become more pronounced in an era of never-ending news cycles and a preponderance of social media that can bring the unfiltered scope of disasters and despair to desktops and mobile devices in seconds. Tragedies — man-made or wrought by nature — are not new to America, but well before the advent of cable news and Twitter, many presidents were comfortable sending others in their stead.
The Johnstown Flood of 1889 killed 2,209 and wiped out thousands of homes, but although the incident took place just 200 miles from Washington, then-president Benjamin Harrison didn’t visit the site. One of the reasons suggests just how much the power of the president has changed over the past century or so.
“He seems to have been profoundly affected by the flood, but the role of the federal government was different then,” says Richard Burkert, chief executive of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association. Harrison relied almost entirely on the private sector to provide relief. “He didn’t conceive that the federal government would be involved in the recovery,” Burkert says. (Harrison did, however, contribute a personal check in the amount of $300, according to historian David McCullough’s book about the disaster.)
By contrast, when another horrendous flood hit Johnstown in 1977, taking 85 lives, President Jimmy Carter didn’t visit, either, but he declared eight Pennsylvania counties disaster areas and pledged federal assistance that would approach $200 million in the following year.
Harrison’s decision not to visit Johnstown wasn’t out of the ordinary. There is no record of President Ulysses S. Grant visiting Chicago after the great fire of 1871. Theodore Roosevelt didn’t travel to San Francisco after the devastating earthquake of 1906. And after the Tri-State Tornado, which ripped through Illinois, Indiana and Missouri in 1925 and killed almost 700 people, Calvin Coolidge remained in Washington, urging the Red Cross to assist in tornado relief work.
Limited transportation was obviously a factor in the decisions made by these presidents, but their presence at the scene was also not viewed as being imperative. That, obviously, has changed.
“There is an expectation that the president will be there,” says Adam Frankel, a former speechwriter in the Obama White House who worked with the president on the speech he gave after the 2010 West Virginia mine accident that claimed 29 lives. “And I think for [Obama], he sees the heartache and the destruction and he wants to be there. Obviously to make sure the resources of the government are there for them, but also if there’s something he and the first lady can do personally to lift spirits, he wants to do that.”
Indeed, lifting the spirits of a community, and by extension the nation, has become a much more important requirement of the modern president.
Although he didn’t travel to the site of the Challenger explosion in Florida in 1986, President Ronald Reagan’s empathetic speech to the nation that evening is widely admired as one of the great presidential addresses. Penned by Peggy Noonan, the speech reflected the nation’s sorrow while offering solace and encouragement, particularly for the schoolchildren who had watched the explosion live on television. Similarly, President Bill Clinton’s visit to Oklahoma City after the bombing of a federal building in 1995 marked a remarkable moment of national unity and purpose.
And George W. Bush was never more popular as a president than after his visit to the rubble of the World Trade Center on the Friday after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to meet with rescuers and express America’s solidarity.
“We knew the president needed to go and be at the site,” Hughes remembers. “We had not planned for him to speak because we had had a national prayer service in Washington that morning and those were his remarks for the day.”
But as the president walked through Ground Zero, it became clear that the workers wanted to hear from him, Hughes remembers. “And so someone came over to me and said, ‘Should he say something?’ and I looked around and realized, ‘Yes, he should absolutely say something.’ ”
As the president began talking, workers started shouting, “We can’t hear you!” And the president responded, “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
Hughes recalls, “I knew standing there — I just realized that it was a moment of such resolute conviction delivered at such an important time for our country that I knew it would become an iconic moment.”
His visit to New York cheered Americans, but Bush’s decision in 2005 to survey Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans by flying over rather than touching down in the city on his way home from vacation in Texas earned him widespread criticism and scathing rebukes.
“Lyndon Johnson went down to New Orleans in Hurricane Betsy and put a flashlight on in the water and said, ‘I’m your president, and I’m here’ and he got accolades for that,” says Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at Rice University. “And then George W. Bush didn’t go down, and he got trashed for not going. It’s now become part of the modern presidency that you need to be boot heels on the ground and go to these spots of tragedy. And if you don’t go, don’t give the right words for the country, the pundit class will go after you.”
Deciding whether the president needs to visit a community after an event can involve a delicate calculation of grief.
“It’s not about the number of people,” Hughes says. “It’s about the extent of the trauma. Is this something that truly does affect the entire nation, that the entire nation is watching and concerned about? It’s more of a judgment call. There’s no specific metrics that you can use.”
Brinkley believes Obama is setting a precedent as a particularly skilled communicator in responding to the tragedies that have hit the country.
“He happens to be a deeply empathetic man, and he has a genius for striking the right tone in a time of crisis,” Brinkley says. “One reason he stays high in public opinion polls, even when the economy wasn’t doing well, is because he makes us proud in those moments of tragedy. From now on, presidents will follow in Obama’s footsteps and help in the grief process. ”
No matter how skilled a president is, however, there is a danger in overestimating just what he will be able to do, says Frankel, Obama’s former speechwriter.
“Oftentimes [Obama will] acknowledge that he can’t pass a law that will remove people’s grief,” he says. “He may be president of the United States, but there’s a real sense of loss that he can’t fix. That is certainly very much on our minds when we’re working with him on the speeches, that these are people who have experienced real loss and who we’re trying to speak to and make feel better. But, look, this is a real tragedy, and we’re going to do what we can, but we know that it won’t be enough.”