Sunday, September 11, 2005

Presidents Judged Over Crises

Presidents Judged Over Crises

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Disasters are a tricky business for presidents. Handle them well and you're a hero. Respond slowly or uncertainly and you could be in trouble.

President Bush's father, in the middle of a what became a losing re-election campaign, was slammed for his administration's lackluster response to Hurricane Andrew. Bill Clinton, by contrast, rebuilt his embattled presidency partially on the strength of his commanding reaction to the Oklahoma City bombings.

The current president is trying to recover from a stumbling start in dealing with Hurricane Katrina.

"A crisis is an opportunity for a president to step forward and exert effective leadership, and establish his credentials as a significant occupant of the Oval Office," historian Robert Dallek said.

Famous for his I-feel-your-pain sympathy, Clinton had proved his disaster bona fides with an emotional visit to the scene of the Midwest's Great Flood of 1993. But his on-the-scene empathy after the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building is considered a high-water mark in presidential disaster response.

The bombing came at a low point in his presidency, not long after his party's loss of power in Congress in the 1994 midterm elections. Clinton's reaction helped send his approval rating over 50 percent, setting the stage for his successful battles with the Republican Congress and his 1996 re-election.

Ronald Reagan was a master of knowing how to react to a disaster. When the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, he went on television and offered words of comfort: "The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted, it belongs to the brave," said the man known as the great communicator.

Jimmy Carter won praise for his handling of the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania in 1979. Carter picked a little known staff member at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as his representative on site. Harold Denton came through as a calming and knowledgeable voice.

Under the first President Bush, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was accused of botching South Carolina's recovery from Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

In 1992, when Hurricane Andrew smashed into Florida, the president was criticized for a by-the-book federal effort as thousands went without shelter and other necessities for days. He visited the area, but his administration declined an initial appeal to send a military engineering brigade and other troops.

The elder Bush later changed course and circumvented the embattled agency by appointing his transportation secretary, Andrew Card, to coordinate relief efforts. Card now is the current president's chief of staff.

The key to an effective response, said Dallek, is the ability to chart quickly a hopeful but realistic path forward, and deliver that message sincerely and compassionately.

"You have to reassure the country that it will sustain itself, but it's got to have some vision, and not in some glib way," he said.

For President Bush, his tough and empathetic response after the Sept. 11 attacks rang true with the public. People rallied around his leadership and he rode that support to a second term, despite questions about the economy and the war in Iraq.

Last year, he was omnipresent in Florida, making five surveys of the damage from four hurricanes in a state where his brother, Jeb, is governor.

Jeb Bush was praised widely for his common touch and strong response to those storms. By his side, the president time and again comforted victims, spoke sorrowfully about devastation and cheered on relief workers. The visits, late in the 2004 campaign in a state critical to his re-election, were assumed by many observers to have a significant political component. Bush captured the state on election night.

With Katrina, though, the president has struggled to find the right tone.

An Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that 52 percent of respondents disapprove of the president's hurricane response. The survey also put his job approval at 39 percent.

By the end of last week, the administration itself was trying to recover and Bush planned to return to Mississippi and Louisiana on Sunday.

FEMA's chief, Michael Brown, was pulled back from oversight of the on-the-ground response, eliminating one persistent line of questioning from critics of the administration's response. That criticism, which early came from lawmakers in both parties, has taken on a more partisan air lately.

And blame is starting to point in several directions - from the administration for the sluggish federal response to state and local officials for what are perceived to be inept decisions.


Jennifer Loven has reported from Washington since 1993 and covers the White House for The Associated Press.