President Obama In 2010: Publicly Demonstrating Leadership In Crisis

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A White House aide tells me that President Obama issued a clear order Tuesday night, just before 6 p.m., when his national security aide Denis McDonough told him there had been an earthquake in Haiti: He told McDonough that he wanted an aggressive and highly coordinated response.

Aggressive it has been. He was briefed twice on Tuesday night, and briefed again by four different agencies and individuals before 10 a.m. Wednesday. He cancelled a planned speech on clean energy jobs, along with a side trip to Maryland, and spent the afternoon working the phones, talking to the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, to Secretary of State, to the USAID administrator and the leaders of Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Chile and the United Nations.The White House website has been turned into a fundraising hub for the Red Cross, and the White House has emailed its list with an appeal to give money.

The full horror of the catastrophe is not yet clear, and it could be weeks before we truly know how effective the U.S. government response has been. But there is little doubt that Obama is seizing the moment to demonstrate, for the second time in the New Year, that he can perform as a crisis president. In fact, Obama’s entire run in 2010 so far been dominated by muscular, public and dutiful demonstrations of authority in the face of crisis.

The first demonstration, in response to the failed Christmas Day bombing, initially carried with it a sense of a do-over.  Obama’s aides felt stung by the press criticism after Christmas, when Obama initially opted to hold off public comments, work behind the scenes and, to the dismay of several columnists, play golf. So after returning to Washington, by contrast, Obama gave two public addresses, abandoning his uber-cool façade and twice appearing visibly aggravated at the failures in U.S. intelligence that allowed the attack to take place.

Now Obama is again taking the upper hand, heading into the crisis head first and in public. There is reason to think the tactic is good politics as well. A Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday contained mostly bad news for Obama: His approval rating is declining, many of his policies are unpopular, and his party is in a tough spot heading into the midterm elections. (Just 45 percent of Americans think Obama shares their views on important issues.) The poll points to other concerns as well: Thirty-five percent of respondents think Obama’s policies have made the country less safe, compared to 24 percent who think the country is safer and 38 percent who see no real change. Fifty percent think Obama “isn’t tough enough in standing up to the rest of the world,” while 46 percent disagree with that statement.

But Obama’s abilities to handle problems are still widely praised. The same poll found 66 percent of Americans, including 45 percent of Republicans and 64 percent of independents, say Obama has “strong leadership qualities.” In other words, Obama’s ability to take charge in tough situations is something that actually does have bipartisan appeal.