Miller Center

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

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.”

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.”