Crises, and especially natural disasters, create a special kind of challenge for any politician, but especially for a president. There’s very little that a national leader can do in the early days of a disaster; much of the initial response is organized ahead of time or devolved to state and local authorities. While later on, White House muscle can be important, the first days are a time when there’s little to do but play the role of president.
Most presidents try to strike two modes: sympathy and inspiration. They go to the site, they shake hands, they hug victims, and they offer words of consolation; they also offer soaring rhetoric about the power of community, the resilience of Americans, and the determination to bounce back.
The sympathetic moments are often the most memorable. Think of Ronald Reagan’s poignant remarks upon the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger: “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’” Think of the image of Barack Obama hugging a woman whose business was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.
Think even of George W. Bush’s appearance at Ground Zero on September 14, 2001. It’s best remembered for his ad-libbed remark, “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!” But Bush began his brief remarks with sympathy and mourning. “I want you all to know that America today, America today is on bended knee, in prayer for the people whose lives were lost here, for the workers who work here, for the families who mourn,” he said.