Mitt Romney wasted no time after accepting the GOP presidential nomination in heading to Louisiana to see the damage from Hurricane Isaac, changing his schedule on the fly to get there the very next day. President Barack Obama also tweaked his travel plans to make sure he gets there Monday, ahead of his own nominating convention.
This for a Category 1 storm that killed seven and swamped low-lying areas of Louisiana and dumped more than a foot of rain on its way north — a disaster, to be sure, but one that will never rival the biggest to hit the Gulf Coast.
In a region with a storied culture and a history of human suffering, natural and manmade catastrophes, and struggles with government ineptitude and indifference, it’s just another turn in front of the cameras as the perfect political backdrop.
Call it the Katrina effect: Presidents, and would-be presidents, can’t afford to get panned like George W. Bush did in the days after Hurricane Katrina crippled New Orleans and the Mississippi and Alabama coasts in 2005, killing more than 1,800.
Bush’s decision to observe Katrina’s flooding of New Orleans first in a flyover in Air Force One instead of putting his feet on the ground gave critics an opening to argue that he was indifferent to the suffering below. He later set the standard for what not to do in a disaster when he infamously patted the back of former Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Michael Brown, telling him he had done a “heck of a job, Brownie,” as tens of thousands languished at New Orleans’ convention center.
“I dare say, before Katrina there’s no way that you would have the president and Romney here within days of one another in a storm of this relatively small magnitude — not to diminish the impact of it (Isaac),” said Robert Mann, the director of the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs at Louisiana State University.
For many of the people who call the Gulf Coast home, it doesn’t matter if it’s a storm that submerges the streets, or a busted oil well spewing millions of gallon of crude: the political posturing doesn’t make them feel like relief is coming any faster.
“We just want our lights on,” said Eddie Cooley, a 56-year-old chemical warehouse worker drenched in sweat as he worked on his truck’s engine in the Lower 9th Ward, the New Orleans neighborhood flooded to rooftops during Katrina. Over the weekend, parts of the neighborhood remained without electricity, days after Isaac passed.
“We don’t care who gets elected and who doesn’t,” Cooley said. “We just want power.”
Presidents have been coming to the Deep South for decades to score political points.
Herbert Hoover rode his way to the White House following his heroics in response to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. In the aftermath of Hurricane Betsy in 1965, U.S. Sen. Russell Long urged President Lyndon Johnson to journey south, telling him that if he got down to New Orleans “by the end of the day, you’ll never lose another election in this state,” Mann said.
Johnson went to New Orleans with Cabinet members to “see with my own eyes what the unhappy alliance of wind and water have done to this land and to its good people.” He met with hurricane victims, ordered water to be delivered to shelters and pledged the federal government’s full resources to help New Orleans get back on its feet.
As it turned out, Johnson decided not to run for re-election in 1968.
Still, “Politicians never stop thinking about politics. Never stop thinking about taking advantage of any situation,” said Mann, who served as spokesman to then-Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco during Katrina.
For national politicians, a crisis like those on the coast presents an opportunity to demonstrate leadership. Or to bring disaster on themselves if they don’t handle it right.
“There is a feeling that a president needs to go to a disaster site and actually touch the floodwaters and hug a hurricane victim, or tornado or earthquake victim,” said Douglas Brinkley, a Rice University presidential scholar. “If you don’t, you’re going to get pummeled by the punditry.”
Obama faced a test when a BP PLC oil well off the Louisiana coast blew out April 20, 2010, killing 11 workers and touching off the worst offshore spill in U.S. history. For starters, he was criticized by Republicans for not going to the Gulf Coast immediately after the spill began.
He was also slammed for vacationing in New England as Gulf Coast leaders were trying to reassure tourists that the region was safe. So Obama and his family took a weekend trip to the Florida Panhandle.
As the disaster dragged on, he had an uncharacteristically hard time connecting with the common man, in this case fishermen and oil workers.
The months-long spill forced him to make his first Oval Office address and get down to the Gulf Coast. He sharpened his words to BP and promised to hold the oil industry to higher standards. He invited family members of the 11 workers killed to the White House.
While Obama struggled, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, was on the attack. Dressed in cowboy boots and working man’s shirts, he railed against Obama, invited the TV cameras along on choreographed tours of the oil-stained coast, where he blamed the president for putting up red tape he said stopped the state from trapping oil offshore with sand barriers, even though experts questioned how effective that tactic would be.
Jindal also charged that Obama was causing even more misery by imposing a moratorium on offshore drilling, which kept the state’s oil industry employees out of work.
Jindal’s performance helped him make up for what many in his party considered a miserable Republican response he made to Obama’s first State of the Union speech in 2009. This year, Jindal was mentioned as a possible Romney running mate.
Disasters haven’t always been such politically charged moments.
Theodore Roosevelt didn’t head out to the West Coast after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. There simply was no way to get there quickly.
“It wasn’t something a president needed to do,” Brinkley said. “You didn’t become the insect in the jar getting shook up if you didn’t visit the (disaster) site.”
For Cooley, the 9th Ward resident, the benefit of having a Romney or an Obama see the problems in person remains as dubious as it was in Roosevelt’s day.
“What are both of them going to do? Come down here and look?” he said.
“I need lights. I don’t need a president.”