The wildfires in Colorado are no different, and we’re seeing that today in the reaction to the news that President Obama hasn’t spoken to Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper since June 12, fifteen days ago, and the sudden announcement after today’s White House press gaggle that Obama will visit Colorado Friday.
The largest fire in Colorado history, the High Park Fire, first caught the official attention of the federal government on June 6th when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) approved a fire management assistance grant (FMAG) for the fire now burning more than 80,000 acres in Larimer County. Additional fires consuming more than 149,288 acres or 231 square miles of land are burning in Colorado as of 5:30 p.m. MDT today. The Waldo Canyon Fire in El Paso County is moving in to the city of Colorado Springs, prompting the evacuation of 32,000 people, and the evacuation of the United States Air Force Academy. That fire, with its stunning visuals, caught the national media’s attention at least two days ago.
When fires of this magnitude broke out in California during my tenure as director of FEMA I was in California immediately, spending several weeks, and returning to DC only once overnight in order to meet with then-Senator Hillary Clinton about programs for New York City’s schools post-9/11. Andy Card, President Bush’s chief of staff, directed me to return to California immediately upon completing that meeting so we would have a White House and FEMA presence throughout those fires. California was never a battleground state in the upcoming 2004 election. It was about leadership.
Fox News reports that after White House Press Secretary Jay Carney admitted today President Obama hadn’t spoke to Colorado’s governor in over 2 weeks while wildfires ravaged the state, the White House rushed out a press release stating that Obama had just spoken with Governor Hickenlooper. Too little, too late, in the world of disaster politics.
Despite the bashing by Republicans about how out-of-touch politically Obama has been as tens of thousands of U.S. citizens seek shelter from the storms, what should we expect a President to do when a natural disaster like this strikes?
At least an acknowledgement of the disaster. It’s simple. A Rose Garden press conference urging prayers, contributions and support for the families and firefighters. A public acknowledgment of the FMAG, or federal resources for firefighting. A few sentences could be inserted to speeches given at fundraisers to remember the victims and encouraging his donors to help by contributing to the volunteer organizations feeding and helping firefighters and citizens.
Something. Anything but silence.
This is not just good disaster politics, it’s good leadership. The people of Colorado (and Utah, New Mexico, Florida and others) are suffering. The leader of the nation, while not able to really do anything himself to help, can at least lead the nation in understanding that parts of our country are suffering and deserving of our thoughts, prayers and support.
Leadership. That’s all a President can do during disasters.
Now President Obama is coming to Colorado.
The fire in Waldo Canyon is zero percent contained as I write. 30,000+ citizens have evacuated. Air operations are incessant, congested and critical.
Marine One will get in the way if it flies anywhere near the AOR (area of operations). Had President Obama engaged this disaster earlier, he wouldn’t feel compelled to fly into an area that he will simply complicate by his presence. He’s muddled and made matters worse by waiting too long to acknowledge the disaster. Now the White House is trying to play catch-up by making an appearance that will complicate operations. If he comes to Colorado and doesn’t at least fly Marine One along Interstate 25 to view the conflagration, he’ll be seen as uncaring. If he tries to appear caring now, he interrupts operations.
They have botched the politics of disasters.
President Bush made his infamous fly-over of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina despite my pleas to land in Baton Rouge where operations were centered and where he could have used his bully pulpit to essentially tell the nation and the cabinet that he was paying attention and they should, too. Instead, he suffered the political backlash of staring out that window of Air Force 1.
Now Obama faces the Hobson’s choice of showing up and getting in the way, or viewing the disaster from Marine One. Let me assure you, even if the President uses Marine One to fly into the AOR he will interrupt operations and firefighting. During one of President Bush’s flyovers of the Gulf coast he constantly turned to me insisting that I instruct the Secret Service and air traffic controllers to not disrupt on-going operations. Nonetheless, because of security restrictions, helicopters and other aircraft were diverted around Marine One as we made our tour. It’s just the nature of presidential visits.
So the politics of disasters enter Colorado this week. President Obama has muffed this one.
Stay home. Come back after the firefighters get things under control.