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Obama in Okla. to console on nation's behalf

When President Barack Obama travels to Oklahoma Sunday to meet with the survivors of Monday's tornado, it will mark the third time this year that he has journeyed to a patch of America to console a community on behalf of the country. During his five years in office, this presidential ritual has become as familiar a symbol of sadness as the sea of stuffed animals and flowers that accompany these mournful scenes.

Beckley, Joplin, Tucson, Aurora, Tuscaloosa, the Jersey shore, Newtown, Boston, West. And now Moore. The national itinerary of woe has been full and wrenching for this president. The circumstances are always different, but the grief is a constant.

Obama has had to take on the role of consoler in chief with increasing regularity but this is a relatively new role for presidents, one that reflects not just the emphasis on an ability to communicate and express empathy, but also an increase in power to direct the federal government to assist in recovery.

"I think the presence of the president has become a visible symbol of the presence of the American people, of their love and their concern and their prayers," says Karen Hughes, who served as a top adviser to President George W. Bush. "And so the president goes to a site like Ground Zero or the Oklahoma tornado both to say the American people are here with you and also to say to the people there that the resources of the nation are behind you. And I think there's become an expectation that that will happen."

 

A hands-off approach

Tragedies -- man-made or wrought by nature -- are not new to America, but well before the advent of cable news and Twitter, many presidents were comfortable sending others in their stead.

The Johnstown Flood of 1889 killed 2,209 and wiped out thousands of homes, but although the incident took place just 200 miles from Washington, then-president Benjamin Harrison didn't visit the site. One of the reasons suggests just how much the power of the president has changed over the past century or so.

"He seems to have been profoundly affected by the flood, but the role of the federal government was different then," says Richard Burkert, chief executive of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association. Harrison relied almost entirely on the private sector to provide relief. "He didn't conceive that the federal government would be involved in the recovery," Burkert says.

(Harrison did, however, contribute a personal check in the amount of $300, according to historian David McCullough's book about the disaster.)

By contrast, when another horrendous flood hit Johnstown in 1977, taking 85 lives, President Jimmy Carter didn't visit, either, but he declared eight Pennsylvania counties disaster areas and pledged federal assistance that would approach $200 million in the following year.

Harrison's decision not to visit Johnstown wasn't out of the ordinary. There is no record of President Ulysses S. Grant visiting Chicago after the great fire of 1871. Theodore Roosevelt didn't travel to San Francisco after the devastating earthquake of 1907. And after the Tri-State Tornado, which ripped through Illinois, Indiana and Missouri in 1925 and killed almost 700 people, Calvin Coolidge remained in Washington, urging the Red Cross to assist in tornado relief work.

Limited transportation was obviously a factor in the decisions made by these presidents, but their presence at the scene was also not viewed as being imperative. That has changed.

 

Modern-day shift

Indeed, lifting the spirits of a community, and by extension the nation, has become a much more important requirement of the modern president.

Although he didn't travel to the site of the Challenger explosion in Florida in 1986, President Ronald Reagan's empathetic speech to the nation that evening is widely admired as one of the great presidential addresses. The speech reflected the nation's sorrow while offering solace and encouragement, particularly for the schoolchildren who had watched the explosion live on television. Similarly, President Bill Clinton's visit to Oklahoma City after the bombing of a federal building in 1995 marked a remarkable moment of national unity and purpose.

And George W. Bush was never more popular as a president than after his visit to the rubble of the World Trade Center on the Friday after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to meet with rescuers and express America's solidarity.

His visit to New York cheered Americans, but Bush's decision in 2005 to survey Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans by flying over rather than touching down in the city on his way home from vacation in Texas earned him widespread criticism and scathing rebukes.

"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.

"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?" 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.''

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.

"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."

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