As President Obama is learning, natural disasters can be make-or-break moments for any administration. The critics jump on any misstep as evidence of ineptitude or negligence. The news media, especially the 24-hour cable networks, amplify every trend, especially the bad ones. Amid the din, the public looks for signs that the president has the right stuff and can handle himself well in a crisis.
Obama and his advisers have begun an aggressive campaign to show that they have been doing all they can "from day one" to limit the damage from the massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, which no one has been able to stop so far. Realizing the potential for political trouble, the president has already made one trip to the affected region to show his concern, and the administration has been releasing a torrent of information about the federal response. Last week the government issued a detailed chronology to demonstrate what one official called its "all-hands-on-deck" attitude. Among the activities listed: authorizing the use of 17,500 members of the National Guard in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi to help protect critical habitat areas and to assist cleanup efforts; sending nearly 200 vessels to assist in containment and cleanup; .
But Republicans such as Rep. Tom Price of Georgia are ratcheting up their criticism. "So far, the remarkably slow response by the Obama administration and their defensive posture raises questions about their handling of this matter," Price said in a statement. "Such a response and attitude do not inspire confidence that similar disasters will be addressed more effectively in the future."
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs offers a tart reply. "We were there the first night," Gibbs says. "How much faster could you be? My only question to them is, what would you have done differently? Nobody has come up with an answer yet. I think they are desperately trying to get Katrina off their party's back."
Of course, controversy over how a president handles a natural disaster isn't new. As Gibbs notes, George W. Bush ran into deep trouble in dealing with Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Thousands of people were left homeless for many days under heartbreaking conditions before the government's relief effort had much effect. Bush's allies say the problem was largely caused by ineptitude on the part of state and local officials. But the episode caused lasting damage to Bush's reputation for competence.
Bill Clinton faced a number of natural disasters, with more positive results. There was a "superstorm" along the East Coast in 1993, an earthquake in Los Angeles in 1994, and a blizzard in the eastern United States in 1996. The Clinton administration was widely considered effective because Clinton placed talented people in key emergency management jobs and he personally kept on top of disaster relief. Earlier, George H.W. Bush had to deal with the San Francisco earthquake in 1989 and Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which ravaged much of South Florida. His administration's efforts generally passed muster.
The special challenge is that natural disasters often come without warning, and they can strain government resources to the limit. Meanwhile, the public looks to the government and specifically the president for an immediate and efficient response under circumstances in which a bad decision can be catastrophic.
The biggest reason why a natural disaster has become such a testing ground for a president is media-related. It's all carried into our living rooms by television in the most dramatic way possible. Every error, every delay, every badly chosen phrase gets intensive coverage, and the plight of the victims is constantly played before the nation's eyes. The media can serve as a powerful and important watchdog in such cases. But the point is that the publicity puts any president squarely in the spotlight and increases the pressure on him immeasurably.
The current oil-leak crisis is one of the most important events in the Obama presidency so far. Scientists say it could be an immense disaster with lasting consequences for the environment, employment, and even the overall economy. What the public wants from government, above all, is common sense and competence, and it's up to Obama to prove that he can pass the test, with not only perceptions at stake but real lives.