12:01am

Tue May 24, 2011
Politics

Obama Eyes Disaster At Home While Traveling Abroad

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 9:48 am

President Obama flew to Europe just hours after a devastating tornado roared through Joplin, Mo., on Sunday.

On the first day of the trip, the president didn't publicly mention the storm, but that changed Tuesday.

"We have been heartbroken by the images we have seen," Obama said. "The devastation is incomparable."

Obama said he would visit Joplin on Sunday, the day after he's scheduled to get back from Europe.

People across the country woke up Monday morning to a harrowing video posted on YouTube and shown on cable news shows.

The person who posted it online says he filmed it in a convenience store, where people were taking shelter as a devastating tornado descended on the town. People huddled in the back of the building and ran to the walk-in refrigerator when the tornado hit.

Then, the news cut to images of Obama in Ireland. It was a stark juxtaposition of scenes, as the president ordered a pint of Guinness at a local bar.

As the jovial scene unfolded in Ireland according to schedule, the White House tried to convey Obama's split-screen focus on Missouri. A post on the White House blog included a statement of condolences. A White House spokesman sent out details of how the president was responding to the tornado, including sending the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the state.

But that was all in writing, and the president's spoken words focused squarely on his message to the people of Ireland.

"Remember that whatever hardships winter may bring, springtime's always just around the corner," the president said in Dublin. "And if they keep on arguing with you, just respond with a simple creed. Is feidir linn — yes we can, yes we can!"

A Balancing Act

Juggling immediate crises with long-term interests is a challenge for any president, and it's hardly a new one for Obama.

Sometimes the White House ditches plans made months in advance. That happened last year, when the president repeatedly postponed trips to Asia to deal first with health care, and then with the Gulf oil spill.

The White House made the opposite decision earlier this year, when Obama went ahead with a trip to Latin America even as the U.S. began military operations in Libya.

On that trip, the president made a brief statement to reporters about Libya between events that were aimed at his international audience. The White House took the same approach Tuesday.

"We are here for you," Obama said. "The American people are by your side. We're going to stay there until every home is repaired, until every neighborhood is rebuilt, until every business is back on its feet."

Barry Scanlon of the crisis management consulting firm Witt Associates says there's really only so much a president can do immediately after a disaster.

Scanlon, who was a senior FEMA official under President Clinton, says a presidential visit could even be counterproductive early on.

"It's not something you ever want to do too soon, because you don't want to interfere with operations," Scanlon says. "But whether it's by phone or in person, it's important for a governor and a mayor and the people who live and work there to know that the full resources are being brought to bear."

The disaster response is one issue; imaging is a separate issue. And it can be especially precarious during a foreign trip.

Gordon Johndroe, a former Bush White House spokesman who's now with the communications firm APCO Worldwide, says that while foreign trips are essential for any president, they're also the moments when it's most necessary to keep an eye on the ball back in the States.

"When you're sitting at home in Missouri or Louisiana, or wherever you may be," he says, "and you're faced with serious devastation because of a natural disaster, and you see your president traveling overseas, you wonder, 'Why is he away and not paying attention to my problems here at home?' "

For any White House, problems and the unexpected are the norm. One more reminder of that fact came Monday: As the ash cloud from an Icelandic volcano shifted its path, Air Force Once was forced to leave Ireland early.

Otherwise, forces beyond the president's control could have derailed this European trip on its very first day.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

President Obama flew to Europe just hours after that devastating tornado roared through the town of Joplin, Missouri on Sunday. And for the first day of his trip he did not publically mention the storm at all. That changed this morning.

President BARACK OBAMA: Like all Americans, we have been monitoring what's been taking place very closely and have been heartbroken by the images that we've seen in Joplin, Missouri in particular.

KELLY: The president says he'll visit Joplin on Sunday, the day after he's scheduled to get back from Europe.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports now on how the White House handles domestic disasters when the commander-in-chief is abroad.

ARI SHAPIRO: People across the country woke up Monday morning to�this harrowing video on YouTube and cable news shows.

(Soundbite of yelling)

SHAPIRO: The person who posted it online says he filmed it in a convenience store, where people were taking shelter. People huddled in the back of the building and ran to the walk-in refrigerator when the tornado hit.

(Soundbite of wind and screaming)

SHAPIRO: Then the news cut to images of President Obama in Ireland. It was a stark juxtaposition of scenes, as the president�ordered a pint of Guinness�at a local bar.

(Soundbite of music and cheering)

SHAPIRO: As the jovial scene unfolded in Ireland according to schedule, the White House tried to convey President Obama's split-screen focus on Missouri. A post on the White House blog included a statement of condolences. And a White House spokesman sent out details of how the president was responding to the tornado.

But that was all in writing, and for his first day overseas, the president continued with a schedule that focused on his Irish ancestry and America's connection with the Irish people.

President OBAMA: Remember that whatever hardships the winter may bring, springtime's always just around the corner.

(Soundbite of cheering)

And if they keep on arguing with you, just respond with a simple creed.�Is Feidir Linn� yes we can, yes we can.

SHAPIRO: Juggling immediate crises with long-term interests is a challenge for any president, and it's hardly a new one for Mr. Obama.

Sometimes the White House ditches plans made months in advance. That happened last year when the president repeatedly postponed trips to Asia to deal first with health care and then with the Gulf oil spill.

The White House made the opposite decision earlier this year. Mr. Obama went ahead with a trip to Latin America even as the U.S. began military operations in Libya. On that trip the president made a brief statement to reporters about Libya between events that were aimed at his international audience. That's the same approach the White House took this morning.

President OBAMA: We are here for you. The American people are by your side. We're going to stay there until every home is repaired, until every neighborhood is rebuilt, until every business is back on its feet.

SHAPIRO: Barry Scanlon of the crisis management consulting firm Witt Associates says there's really only so much a president can do immediately after a disaster. He was a senior FEMA official under President Clinton, and he says a presidential visit could even be counterproductive early on.

Mr. BARRY SCANLON (Witt Associates): It's not something you ever want to do too soon, because you don't want to interfere with operations. But whether it's by phone or in person, it's important for a governor and a mayor and the people who live and work there to know that the full resources are being brought to bear.

SHAPIRO: The disaster response is one issue imaging is a separate issue. And it can be especially risky during a foreign trip.

Gordon Johndroe was a Bush White House spokesman who is now with the communications firm APCO Worldwide. He says while foreign trips are essential for any president, they are also the moment it is most necessary to keep an eye on the ball back in the States.

Mr. GORDON JOHNDROE (APCO Worldwide): When you're sitting at home in Missouri or Louisiana, or wherever you may be, and you're faced with the serious devastation because of a natural disaster, and you see your president traveling overseas, you wonder, why is he away and not paying attention to my problems here at home?

SHAPIRO: For any White House, problems and the unexpected are the norm. One more reminder of that fact came yesterday. As the ash cloud from an Icelandic volcano shifted its path, Air Force Once was forced to leave Ireland early. Otherwise forces beyond the president's control could have derailed this European trip on its very first day.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.