What Haiti needs now: a personal visit from Obama

US presidents visit disaster areas in America all the time. President Obama can build on his good response to the Haitian quake so far by bearing personal witness to this tragedy.

Thus far, President Obama has done all the right things in response to Tuesday’s catastrophic earthquake in Haiti. He hastily dispatched American ships, transport planes, and more than 2,000 troops to help distribute supplies, search for missing victims, and maintain order in the devastated Caribbean nation. At a press conference on Thursday, meanwhile, the president also pledged $100 million in immediate US aid.

But there’s one pledge Mr. Obama hasn’t made: to visit Haiti himself. 

And he should, as soon as possible.

When disaster strikes in the United States, after all, presidents traditionally travel to the stricken areas to offer symbolic as well as material support. A presidential visit signals the nation’s concern for the victims, drawing renewed attention to their plight. The time has come for Obama to extend this practice outside our own borders to a country that is suffering beyond anything we can imagine.

Presidential disaster visits date to the mid 20th-century, when air travel made them easier. Harry Truman went to Oregon in 1948 to get a first-person look at its floods, which reminded him of the torrents he had witnessed growing up in Missouri. And when another round of flooding hit Missouri and its neighbors in 1951 and again in 1952, President Truman was there both times.

“I have ... a nationwide public service job,” Truman told a 1952 press conference in Omaha, after nearby flood damage. “That’s all I do. That’s all I am....”

Thirteen years later, when hurricane Betsy struck the Gulf Coast, Lyndon B. Johnson flew immediately to the region. “I am here because I want to see with my own eyes what the unhappy alliance of wind and water have done to this land and people,” President Johnson told an airport audience in New Orleans, the day after the disaster. “You can be sure that the federal government’s total resources will be turned to Louisiana to help this state and its citizens find its way back from this tragedy.”

Johnson’s response to the Gulf Coast floods is often contrasted with George W. Bush’s tepid and tardy reaction to hurricane Katrina, which struck the same region in 2005. Whatever his missteps over Katrina, however, President Bush actually outpaced prior presidents in disaster-related activity and funding. Declaring over 400 federal disasters, Mr. Bush committed nearly $100 billion to help states and localities clean up after floods, fires, and storms.

He also appeared frequently on the scene, touring damaged areas and hugging victims. Indeed, some observers jokingly suggested that Bush was challenging his immediate predecessor, Bill Clinton, for the title of “consoler-in-chief.”

It was President Clinton, of course, who elevated this tradition into an art form. From a North Carolina town wrecked by a hurricane to tornado-ravaged communities in his native Arkansas, Mr. Clinton rarely missed a chance to visit a disaster site. It was good politics, of course, but it was also good for the country. The more people who knew about a tragedy, Clinton realized, the more might pitch in to help.

That’s why Clinton took his disaster show overseas in 1999, visiting victims of an earthquake in Turkey that took more than 17,000 lives. Accompanied by his wife and daughter, Clinton toured a tent city inhabited by 9,000 people who had been displaced by the quake.

“We will stay with you and work with you,” Clinton said, pledging continued US aid. “I just want to urge you to keep your spirits up, keep the smiles on your children’s faces, keep helping the people who lost their loved ones in the earthquake, and know that together we will get through this to better days.”

That’s exactly the kind of speech that Obama needs to give in Haiti, where the death and injury tolls have already dwarfed the Turkish earthquake. Some experts have even suggested that the Haitian quake could be one of the deadliest in modern times.

An Obama visit to Haiti would galvanize American and international relief efforts, as nothing else could. It wouldn’t hurt that Obama is the first black president in America, and Haiti the first black republic in the West. Most of all, though, Obama’s visit would remind Haitians – and the world – about the common humanity that binds us all.

That’s what Obama was trying to convey at his press conference on Thursday, which he concluded with an eloquent tribute to the strength, resilience, and faith of a devastated but unbowed country. “I want to speak directly to the people of Haiti,” Obama said. 

And so he should. In person.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. His most recent book is “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.” 

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