“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.”