I heard on the news yesterday that President Obama is planning to visit Louisiana next Tuesday. I have just one question: Why?
What exactly is the point of having heads of state do a personal visit to a disaster? Does it somehow make it less disastrous for the thousands of people who have lost their homes? Does it make it more real for the rest of us? I know there was a lot of complaining going on in various circles about the fact that the President hadn't immediately cancelled his vacation and headed straight for Baton Rouge, but why should he? If the various state and federal agencies are doing their jobs, why does the President need to show up too?
We all know that a lot of what the President does is basically ceremonial: meetings with other heads of state to pretend to talk about stuff that's already been hashed out behind the scenes by various diplomats and policy wonks, giving speeches written by other people, pardoning an occasional turkey, and so on. Do we really need to also require meaningless appearances in areas that have been ravaged by floods or fires or earthquakes? Wouldn't it make life simpler for everyone -- local law enforcement, the Secret Service, taxpayers in general -- if whoever happens to occupy the Oval Office just goes on television and gives the typical "our hearts go out to the people of . . . " speech in which he or she urges us all to donate to relief efforts and let it go at that? No fly-overs, no photo ops with a token aid worker or flood victim or two, just an acknowledgement that something bad happened and various bureaucratic wheels have been set in motion to provide some help.
I noticed that the Governor of Louisiana is smart enough that he very bluntly said that Obama should stay away. Having a President visit for any reason, good or bad, always entails a clusterfuck of almost Biblical proportions. Highways get shut down, traffic's rerouted for hours before the actual visit, hundreds of local law enforcement end up getting pulled away from their regular jobs, businesses unlucky enough to located next to a motorcade route lose money. It's a mess, and it's a distraction from whatever the problem was to begin with.
Apparently not. According to PBS, the expectation that a President would make a personal appearance is much more recent. Until just a few years ago, the typical response was a statement from the White House, and not even a personal statement, more like a press release. For some reason, though, the President is now expected (on top of all the other responsibilities that come with the job) to be the Consoler in Chief, the sin eater who shows up at the wake to reassure the rest of us that everything is going to be okay. It makes no sense, but then most things about politics and public life don't.