A Look Into Former Presidents' Crisis Management Techniques

In the past 25 years, America has seen four presidents and hundreds of cases of difficulty and chaos, putting those presidents in the position to act. It will always be somewhat negotiable whether or not a president handles a situation well; the nation’s politics are clearly divided and with that will always come a bias look into each leader’s role and choice of action.

Regardless of an individual’s political views, gauging a president’s performance becomes easier when he or she is faced with a real, dyer emergency. It is in these urgent times when the president is expected to act immediately, and after all, when a person acts in the heat of the moment, his or her true colors tend to shine through.

A country’s people have the right to assume that their president will always have correct, tactful and comforting words in any given situation, especially during a crisis.

How well have America’s leaders done in the last 25 years?


Bill Clinton

On April 19, 1995, 168 Americans died –and over 600 were wounded— in the Oklahoma City Bombing. That same evening, President Bill Clinton faced the country with his plans of action. These plans included calling a state of emergency in Oklahoma City, sending a crisis management crew to the site to help uncover the victims as well as enforcing higher security in other Federal buildings.

Between declaring his course of action and giving a speech that seemed to comfort the country, Bill Clinton rushed to the issue in a way that New York Magazine claims, “saved his presidency.” Peter Keating references a quote from the book POTUS Speaks– written by Clinton’s speechwriter at the time, Michael Waldman– in his NYM article: “It was the nation’s first exposure to Clinton as mourner in chief … In fact, it was the first time Clinton had been a reassuring figure rather than an unsettling one.”

Some of his quick calls-of-action led to negative long-term effects on America, though. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act was put in place to help the country’s criminal justice system but ended up doing quite the opposite.

“It turns out that the officials most vociferously supportive of the AEDPA were often those from jurisdictions that had terrible records of wrongful convictions spurred by prosecutorial misconduct, racial bias, inept judges and shoddy police work,” said Andrew Cohen of the Brennan Center For Justice. “So there are countless innocent men and women who are still in prison in America today because of the AEDPA, a law that likely would never have passed had the Murrah building not been bombed.”


George W. Bush

President George W. Bush had a slightly different approach to handling crises. Bush implemented action soon after the attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, but did not make his public appearance until later.

“After the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, Bush was virtually unseen during the first 11 hours, making only brief statements and effectively ceding the public leadership role in the crisis to New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani,” Douglas Brinkley of Vanity Fair said. Nonetheless, he did pull through.

There is not much debate to the fact that 9/11 turned America upside-down. The nation’s people needed a leader, and eventually, Bush’s televised approach was one that declared the demise of Al-Qaeda.

Years later, during Bush’s second term, Hurricane Katrina struck the Southern Gulf region of the United States and, once again, the country waited for him to make a move. His reaction was even slower during this emergency. Bush seemed to have completely disconnected from the situation and from his duties as commander-in-chief—and Americans noticed. Instead of visiting the mess that became New Orleans, he flew over the area in Air Force One. He did not even attempt the patriotic rhetoric that he used during 9/11.

“Just as New Orleans’s levee system catastrophically failed to work (breaking in about 50 places) Bush had catastrophically failed to save lives,” Brinkley said.


Barack Obama

President Barack Obama witnessed 24 mass shootings during his two terms of office, and each one was addressed in their own ways. Sometimes the acknowledgments were as small as sending condolences, while others drew complete national attention. Obama caught backlash oftentimes for not directly addressing the issue of terrorism during these disasters, according to Tevi Troy of National Affairs. His article, “Presidents and Mass Shootings,” quoted Obama addressing this problem:

“In September 2016, he addressed the criticism, calling it a 'manufactured' issue, and explaining that 'what I have been careful about when I describe these issues is to make sure that we do not lump these murderers into the billion Muslims that exist around the world, including in this country, who are peaceful, who are responsible, who, in this country, are fellow troops and police officers and firefighters and teachers and neighbors and friends.'"

In a political and social climate that was much different than what preceding presidents had dealt with, Obama’s hair grayed with each delicate, strenuous and unfortunate scenario.


Donald Trump

In an era of the peak of social media, President Donald Trump chooses to use his Twitter platform as a means of addressing national catastrophe. During the 2018 California wildfires, Trump had a similar –but even less touching— defensive approach as Bush did. “Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!” Trump said in a particular tweet that caught his audience’s attention.

Courtesy of: Twitter


This approach of “action” was one (of many) of recklessness. A New York Times article explained that according to Max Mortiz– a wildfire specialist at the University of California, Santa Barbara– the California wildfires were not even classified as forest fires. People were dying and once again, the country was faced with a crisis that made Americans yearn for a responsible, consoling leader. In return, all they saw was their president pointing fingers and firing tweets. Trump did eventually visit the areas destroyed by the campfire and implemented federal assistance.

Citizens of a country as powerful as the United States need a leader who not only can take charge and be prideful of his or her nation but can also show compassion and stand in solidarity with its people. Who will be next, and how will the inevitable continuum of disaster be challenged and handled?