Pete Souza/Official White House Photo
President Obama talks on the phone with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, during his visit to Dublin on Monday.
President Obama talks on the phone with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, during his visit to Dublin on Monday. Pete Souza/Official White House Photo
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.