Presidents have two important roles after disasters, not one.
My friend, Chris Robling, posted a video showing Pres. George W. Bush hugging a Katrina flood victim. It is genuinely touching. He also posts the contrasting picture of Pres. Obama playing golf as Louisiana residents suffer through the latest natural disaster, a devastating flood north of New Orleans.
A sharp rebuke comes from his friend, Cotton Stevenso. The makers of that video should have asked his New Orleans relatives, he says, what a giant screw-up FEMA was after Katrina and how Bush wrongly praised them. I could say the same for my own extended family and friends in NOLA. Their painful losses from Katrina were compounded by incompetent government action at all levels.
Robling and Stevenson, taken together, actually show that the President and Executive Branch have two tasks, not one, in these floods.
- The more important task is the practical one: to help with on-the-ground relief. The Bush Administration and FEMA screwed that up badly, as did Louisiana’s state government and the city of New Orleans.
- The secondary task is to pay a “pastoral visit” to the victims, to show care, sympathy, and empathy. The role is really one of “Head of State,” like the Queen of England, and not “Head of Government,” like the Prime Minister. Of course, there are large political ramifications for doing this head-of-state job well or poorly. So, what is this pastoral task? The President is speaking for all the country, showing the victims that we all care about their suffering and want to help. Bush did that well throughout his presidency, including his hugs for Katrina victims. But Louisiana residents were not appeased because the Administration failed in providing on-the-spot relief. Obama, on vacation and playing golf in Martha’s Vineyard, failed in this pastoral role. His Homeland Security secretary visited, but he is head of the USG’s disaster relief services and cannot effectively communicate the nation’s collective concern.
Robling and Stevenson are talking past each other: they are highlighting different roles each Presidential must play. Bush was the better emphasizer, especially after Katrina. Obama was having fun on vacation, but his administration handled practical relief better. I have no doubt which is the more important task, at least for me. I’d treasure a picture with the president for a lifetime, but, right now, I’d rather have a soft, dry bed.