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Responder-in-Chief: Presidential Leadership and Disaster Politics

President Lyndon B. Johnson addresses members of the press while deplaning in New Orleans.

President Lyndon B. Johnson addresses members of the press while deplaning in New Orleans to survey damage done by Hurricane Betsy. September 10, 1965. Photo by Yoichi R. Okamoto. Courtesy LBJ Library, PD.

Hurricane Sandy is threatening millions on the East Coast and dominating the headlines and airwaves. With just eight days until the election, Sandy is also impacting the presidential campaign. Both presidential campaigns have canceled planned stops and are urging people in affected states to take precautions. Some may find the change in tone, even if forced by disaster, a relief. Rather than bashing each other non-stop, the candidates are more focused on demonstrating leadership in the face of a disaster, showing concern and empathizing with those in harm’s way. Hurricane Sandy is no doubt a test of leadership for both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. However, as the head of government, the President will be particularly challenged with the responsibility for how the government responds. However, the President has not always held the role of “Responder-in-Chief.”

During the Progressive Era, people turned to local governments to respond. For example, following the 1900 Galveston, Texas hurricane that drown one sixth of the population and destroyed one third of property, many people were dissatisfied with the way local governments responded, but people didn’t turn to the president. Instead, the hurricane triggered the mobilization of an important movement to reform local government since it was viewed as the locus of response. Galveston was one of the first cities in the Southwest to adopt government by commission, and to organize the city government as a corporation led by “a president and four managers.” This system emphasized efficiency and economy, two important Progressive Era themes, to simplify administration and to weaken the power of local alderman and their corrupt style of governance. Government by commission was also meant to attract business and professional men. The reform in Galveston’s city government spread to Houston, Dallas, Forth Worth before 1910. Progressives touted the form of government as a more direct style of government that was “really representative” since people from across the city voted for commissioners. Eventually, local government by commission spread across the Southwest and the nation. Of importance here, the new system of governance contributed to Progressive Era campaigns to aggrandize executive management and to habituate people to executive aggrandizement.

One might ask: when did the People start looking to the President to provide leadership in response to disasters? The President’s role of “Responder-in-Chief” only assumed grand proportions in the modern presidency. Even Dwight D. Eisenhower did not visit the Louisiana coast in 1957 when Hurricane Audrey wreaked havoc, killing some 500 people, nor did he feel compelled to do so. Last week, the Miller Center hosted a conference on Recasting Presidential History. During the conference, Gareth Davies presented a paper on “The Changing Presidential Politics of Disaster: From Coolidge to Obama” based on his forthcoming book. Davies argued that it was during the Johnson and Nixon presidencies that the decisive change took place:

Before the Great Society, presidents did not routinely play a leading role when a natural disaster struck, despite the great expansion in government and in the presidency that occurred in response to the successive grand disasters of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, during the middle third of the twentieth century. After the Great Society, it was taken for granted that the White House would play such a role.

As Davies pointed out, before LBJ, it was rare for presidents to be criticized for a poor disaster response management.

One of the key turning points in expectations that the President respond to disaster was following Hurricane Betsy in September 1965.  The Miller Center features an online exhibit of President Lyndon B. Johnon’s response, which was unprecedented. As the Miller Center’s exhibit shows, LBJ was initially disinclined to visit the site, but was eventually persuaded to do so based on political considerations by Senator Long, who had recently become the Senate Majority Whip, and other members of the then-powerful Louisiana Congressional delegation.

Hurricane Betsy was a Category 4 storm with wind gusts near 160 mph that came ashore near Grand Isle Louisiana on September 9, 1965. New Orleans was hit with 110 mph winds, a storm surge around 10 feet, and heavy rain. Betsy devastated low-lying areas on the eastern side of the city and eventually led to the expansion of an already impressive levee system to protect a city that lay mostly below sea-level. After the storm passed, Louisiana Senator Russell Long called President Johnson and urged him to tour the devastated areas. Senator Long told LBJ of the severe damaged done to his own home that had nearly killed his family. LBJ, along with the heads of the Office of Emergency Planning (OEP), the Army Corps of Engineers, the Small Business Administration, the Department of Agriculture, and the Surgeon General, arrived in New Orleans five hours after talking to Senator Long. After seeing the “measureless” “human suffering and damage” glimpsed from the plane, LBJ said upon arrival, “I am here because I want to see with my own eyes what the unhappy alliance of wind and water have done to this land and its good people.” Reporters noted that he was shocked by the suffering and in particular by thirst of survivors in a darkened, unventilated refugee shelter. Illuminating his face with a flashlight, LBJ told the audience, “I’m your president and I’m here to help.” LBJ also announced that the “red tape be cut,” and he took personal control of operations, which he continued—according to the Washington Post—“day and night.”

Davies argues that although LBJ’s response to Betsy probably did not significantly affect the expectations that Americans in general had of presidential disaster leadership, it did set significant precedents including the allocation of federal funds to relieve individual disaster victims and a massive, federally funded hurricane-defense system for New Orleans. Both measures were included in the “Betsy Bill” drafted by the Louisiana delegation following the disaster, which likely would not have passed without LBJ’s backing.

The greater transformation of the public’s expectation for presidential response to disasters is rooted more broadly in the development of the permanent campaign. Amidst the height of the presidential campaign in 1972, Richard Nixon was criticized for his response to Hurricane Agnes that affected the Atlantic states, especially Pennsylvania, New York and Northern Virginia. Pennsylvania Democratic Governor Milton Shapp, Democratic Presidential Candidate George McGovern and others seized on the opportunity to sharply criticize Nixon for what they called the government’s incompetent response. Nixon moved quickly to mitigate the damage, but was only able to do so when he took the reins and choreographed the government’s response from the White House. If not for the campaign season and the politicization of the government’s response, we may not have seen a broader expansion of the President’s role of “Responder-in-Chief.”

It remains to be seen how Sandy will impact the 2012 presidential election. Some have expressed concern that it may keep voters away from polls. Others have argued that the storm gives President Obama an advantage in the news cycle because of his duties as head of government. We can expect is to see both candidates seize the opportunity to demonstrate leadership as neither wants to be faced with criticism for mishandling the situation. And we can thank the permanent campaign for this development in the politics of disaster response.

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