When touring disasters, politicians weigh image, distraction
KOKOMO, Ind. (AP) — In a dramatic, made-for-camera arrival, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence stepped off a Blackhawk helicopter to tour tornado-damaged neighborhoods Thursday, giving out hugs and promising swift assistance a day after several twisters touched down.
The people of this city about an hour north of Indianapolis, where a tornado toppled a Starbucks coffee shop and tore apart homes, were grateful for the attention.
“It means a lot that they are taking time out of their schedules,” said Heidi Otiker, who was clearing debris from her yard when Pence stopped by with TV crews and reporters. If he stayed away, she said, it would have cost him votes: “If you can’t come out and support us in our time of need, why should we support you in your time of need?”
The Republican vice presidential candidate’s decision to quickly leave the campaign trail came just days after he and running mate Donald Trump harshly criticized Obama for delaying a tour of devastating Louisiana flooding until after his vacation, and it underscores the political perils of not showing up for disasters.
Politicians who don’t make an appearance risk angering voters or giving opponents a line of attack.
President George W. Bush was harshly panned for his handling of Hurricane Katrina, which was exacerbated by his decision to fly over the Louisiana disaster instead of visiting.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie drew the ire of critics in 2010, when he decided to go to Disney World after his state was hit by a blizzard. Two years later, he was widely praised for his handling of Hurricane Sandy, which included touring the damage with Obama.
Trump and Pence toured the flooding in Baton Rouge several days before Obama and blasted the president for golfing instead of cutting short his vacation.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said Obama was better off waiting until after the cleanup was underway, so as not to pull resources away from the effort — though his decision might have been different if he were running for office.
As a candidate in 2008, Obama attacked Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina. And in 2012, the year of his re-election, he rushed to Louisiana to show solidarity with victims of Hurricane Isaac.
Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, said she has not visited Louisiana yet because “the relief effort can’t afford any distractions.”
That’s a real concern with high-profile visits, even though they may draw attention to the disaster, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. Presidents did not routinely visit disaster areas until they could easily fly there.
“It’s a logistical nightmare on top of the disaster itself,” Sabato said, noting that visits require coordination with busy police and emergency personnel and sometimes shut down highways. “The last thing people need when they’re recovering from a disaster is to have a president visit. If they skipped the visit and simply sent money, it would probably be better.”
Former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar said he hesitated early on to visit disaster areas because he feared interrupting recovery efforts. But he later came to believe such visits were an important psychological boost to residents.
“It’s a tough call, and I don’t think candidates or all legislators need to go, but when people are hurting, they do feel a little better if they see the head person show up,” said Edgar, recalling the weeks he spent visiting waterlogged residents and filling sandbags during the 1993 Mississippi River flood. “But I wouldn’t try to second-guess” other politicians.
Sabato said Pence had no choice but to go back to Indiana after his criticism of Obama, though Pence denied any political calculation.
“I really don’t think in those terms,” he told reporters Thursday. “I’m an eyes-on leader. I like to lead from the front.”
Webber reported from Chicago
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