Disasters Pose Leadership, Political Challenges for US Presidents

President Barack Obama says he is pushing federal agencies to do everything possible as quickly as possible to help victims of Hurricane Sandy. For many politicians, how they respond in a crisis can affect how voters perceive them.

Just a week before the U.S. presidential election, Hurricane Sandy battered huge areas of the U.S. East Coast.

President Obama suspended campaigning to oversee the response. "The election will take care of itself next week.  Right now our number one priority is to make sure we are saving lives," Obama said.

As the storm eased, the president was in New Jersey, with the state's Republican governor, Chris Christie.  The governor, a supporter of the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, praised  Obama.

Romney, in a tight race with Obama, also temporarily suspended campaigning. He urged Americans to contribute to relief efforts.

"I appreciate your generosity, it is part of the American spirit, the American way to give to people who are in need," Romney said.

A politician’s handling of a disaster can leave a lasting mark on public perception.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the U.S. Gulf coast. In New Orleans, levees failed, leaving communities under water, and more than 1,800 people died.

Hurricane Katrina response

President George W. Bush flew over the area. And he praised Michael Brown, who headed the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  

The president was criticized for failing to lead a robust government response.  Brown was forced to resign.

Within weeks of the storm, President Bush's approval ratings dropped, in large part because of Katrina.

In August 1992, President George H.W. Bush's response after Hurricane Andrew lashed the state of Florida was widely criticized as too slow. His approval ratings were already low because of the poor economy, and a few months later, he lost his race for re-election.

Mark Merritt, president of Witt Associates, an emergency management company that has worked with Democratic and Republican administrations, says President Obama de-politicized the response to Hurricane Sandy.

"I think the presidents that have been effective, President Clinton was probably the best, and President Obama is showing that type of leadership now is, when you put that aside it all works out for the best.  People want to see a strong leader, they don’t want to see a politician," Merritt said.

Americans so far are giving Obama high marks on how he has handled Hurricane Sandy.

A Washington Post/ABC poll found that 78 percent described the president's response as excellent or good.  The same poll showed two thirds of Romney supporters also praising the president's handling of the storm.

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