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In Times of Trouble: The Political Pressure on the White House During Crisis

Written By:

Carson Watkins

Publishing Date: 

October 13, 2023

During the presidential election cycle, the candidates go out and make their pitches to the voters about why they are the best option for the position. When looking into the candidates, the voters look for a candidate they can trust to lead the country through times of prosperity and times of tragedy. The public's perception of the President's handling of catastrophe can flip an election. However, advances in media have changed the landscape of presidential public relations, making it imperative that tragedy is navigated with procession. 

Pearl Harbor

As the Nazi party started to take power in Germany, nations were looking to the United States for assistance to curb the rise of authorism. However, the United States was unwilling to intervene. This policy was called Isolationism. President Franklin Roosevelt was reluctant to provoke the Germans. While attempting to navigate the rise of Nazi power, the United States faced the threat of other foreign adversaries. Secretary of State Henry Stimson urged President Roosevelt to strengthen his foreign policy due to the rise of the Japanese military. In the pre-war era, the Japanese developed one of the world's largest Navy and infantries. In April of 1941, Roosevelt brought Stimson and other foreign policy leaders to the White House to discuss the security of the Pacific Ocean. Stimson Warned that Hawaii was susceptible to an attack from the Japanese. Roosevelt disagreed, neglecting the navy artillery, viewing the branch to be a peacekeeping force ( Jordan, 2015, P. 74). December 7, 1941, 8:04 A.M., radio stations broke into regularly scheduled programming to announce that all military officers at Peral Harbor were to report to duty and for civilians to take shelter immediately. The United States was under attack, resulting in the loss of hundreds of lives and the destruction of several ships.

On this Day, Senator Arthur Vanderburg wrote, “The age of isolationism for any relist is over.” (Boyle, 1972, p.1). Fifty-four minutes after the attack, congress passed a resolution of war. The next day, FDR addressed the nation via a joint session of Congress, where he delivered the infamous “Day of Infamy” speech. While the general American public shifted anger towards the Japanese, the threat of  Nazi Germany was still ever-present. Roosevelt utilized new communication system of radio in his “Fireside Chats”. Two days after the attack, Roosevelt gave a timeline of parallels between Japan and Hitler's rise in Germany. Roosevelt spoke to the American people, saying,

“We are now in this war. We are all in it—all the way. Every single man, woman and child is a partner in the most tremendous undertaking of our American history. We must share together the bad news and the good news, the defeats and the victories—the changing fortunes of war.”


After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnston took control of a fractured nation. As the ongoing Civil Rights Movement raged on, the Nation monitored escalating tensions in Vietnam. The country feared that communism in North Vietnam would spread if not contained. In late 1965, the Joint Chiefs of Staff began to ask for troops. Johnson allowed troops to undertake offensive operations. This grant was released with little press coverage. Johnston was at first averse to conflict, fearing the expansion of the conflict, but quickly, the pressure got to him, and the conflict continued to escalate in the coming years. The goal for the United States was to stop Communism in North Vietnam. However, the North Vietnamese tactics would be difficult for the army to combat, leading to calculated bombing raids in northern Vietnam. These campaigns would wipe out 59 percent of the oil supply in Vietnam and kill millions. (Lawrence, 2008, P. 99). The rise in bombing campaigns corresponded with the increase of televisions in American homes, allowing the average citizen to view the war in real-time, and the American public turned their back on this war as the government attempted to assure them everything was going to plan. In September of 1967, Johnston addressed the Nation and said,

“I do not have to tell you that our people are profoundly concerned about that struggle. There are passionate convictions about the wisest course for our Nation to follow. Many sincere and patriotic Americans harbor doubts about sustaining the commitment that three Presidents and a half a million of our young men have made.”

However, whatever reassurance could not stop the American people from seeing horrifying images broadcast into their living rooms every night. Johnston's approval went on a steep decline. In an address to the National Association of Broadcasters, Johnston (1968) touched on the history of mass communications and the new America. He says,

“During the Korean war, for example, at that time when our forces were pushed back there to Pusan; or World War II, the Battle of the Bulge, or when our men were slugging it out in Europe or when most of our Air Force was shot down that day in June 1942 off Australia. But television was being used last night to carry a different message.”

            Johnson would not seek reelection after it was clear there was no path back for him to win the election. Among historic lows in popularity, Richard Nixon would campaign promising to end the war. The war coverage gave Americans a new window into their government and an avenue to keep those in power accountable. Michael Mandelbaum (1982) says, “ It might have made the American people more conscious of it than they would have been if television cameras weren’t present.”

September 11, 2001

On a crisp autumn day, New York City, an unsuspecting country, is about to be changed forever. As residents in New York City, we were going about our morning when an unexpected sight greeted patrons. An employee recalls a shadow covering the street at the Port Authority Bus Stop on 8th Avenue. (Graff, 2019, P.32). Seconds later, a 767 Airplane would hit the World Trade Center. What was first thought to be a tragic accident quickly realized not to be when a second plane hit the second tower. As Smoke billowed into the blue New York City Sky, President George W. Bush sat in a Florida classroom when he was informed that the nation was under attack. With a stone face, Bush sat in the classroom for seven minutes before leaving to get the needed information. At 9:30, Bush faced the cameras and said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is a difficult moment for America. Today is a national tragedy. Two Planes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country.” (Mitchell, 2019, P. 140). Back in Washington D.C., the entire government was in panic as planes were being grounded to attempt to avoid any more attacks. National security advisor Condoleezza Rice recalls being sent down to the bunker in the West Wing before she got on the phone with the President. Slowly, the country shut down as Air Force One became the only plane in US airspace. President Bush made it Back to Washington, D.C. Where he addressed the Nation from the Oval Office. Bush Said,

“America and our friends and allies join with all those who want peace and security in the world, and we stand together to win the war against terrorism. Tonight, I ask for your prayers for all those who grieve, for the children whose worlds have been shattered, for all whose sense of safety and security has been threatened. And I pray they will be comforted by a power greater than any of us.”

Earlier that year, President Bush was Inaugurated under a cloud of controversy, with the Supreme Court helping him win due to voting inconsistencies in the State of Florida. President Bush was unable to secure that popular vote. Just nine months later, President Bush had an approval rating of ninety percent and had a congress willing to give him whatever he needed. (Draper, 2007, P.167). In the 2004 presidential election, President Bush would weather the storm of attacks on his foreign policy to win reelection as the war dragged on.

Hurricane Katrina

In January of 2005, President Bush would be inaugurated into a second term. In the first months of the term, tragedy would strike the country, not from terrorists but from natural disaster. August 2005 A hurricane was heading to landfall in the Gulf of Mexico. The

 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was in discussions with southern states as newspaper headlines prepared citizens for the worst. During meetings, meteorologists began to suspect New Orleans, Louisiana, would take a direct hit. Sunday, August 29th, Katrina made landfall, and New Orleans took a direct impact. Neighborhoods vanish instantly, and millions are left without shelter, food, and, in some instances, family members. Once again, President Bush needed to lead. In an Address, President Bush addressed the Country and discussed the damage and the courage American people showed in this time of trouble. Bush said,

“Across the Gulf Coast, among people who have lost much, and suffered much, and given to the limit of their power, we are seeing that same spirit -- a core of strength that survives all hurt, a faith in God no storm can take away, and a powerful American determination to clear the ruins and build better than before.”

In this address, President Bush wanted to create a better future for the Gulf Coast. New Orleans had a high poverty rate among minorities. The devastation was an opportunity to rebuild these cities to correct societal wrongs. 32.5% of residents of  New Orleans lived below the federal poverty and we’re in dire need of assistance. (Hartman, Squires, 2006, P.91). The day after the storm, issues began to pile up due to a lack of command structures between state and federal agencies. Louisiana Governor Kathrine Blanco denied President Bush’s call to federalize the National Guard, a decision that started a domino effect that would delay the recovery efforts in the city. Blanco worried that the presence of military officials in civilian zones would not budge on this issue. While the bickering continued, the citizens of New Orleans were left for dead in the 72-hour debate between the President and the Governor. Once the cleanup finally started, President Bush did everything he could to shift the narrative. Bush would take several trips to the region, give speeches, write checks for relief efforts, and do manual labor for photo opportunities. It seemed too little too late. Criticism of the city's preparedness started to hamper the news coverage before heartbreaking images of the evacuation efforts, notably in the New Orleans Superdome, would shift any positive Public Relations the Bush Administration had hoped for. The perceived lack of care for impoverished African Americans would dominate the headlines. This, along with rising gas prices and the decline in support for the war on terror, would curtail Bush's second term.

Hurricane Sandy

Just weeks out from the 2012 election, a hurricane was once again barreling towards major metropolitan areas. Hurricane Sandy was about to hit the Jersey Shore and New York City. President Obama faced a national tragedy in the waning days of his re-election campaign. Obama and his administration looked to his predecessor to rebuild New York City and the Jersey Shore. One of the Notable failures of Katrina relief was the government's fear of people using these funds for fraud and putting barriers in place to make sure the correct people were getting the funds. This well-intentioned policy initially made it difficult for those who were displaced to apply online or to an office. President Obama promised, “No Red Tape.” (Sobel, 2014, P. 161). An unlikely alliance was made as the Hurricane and election day inched closer. Republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and the President began to spend much time with each other, and Christie gave multiple acknowledgments of the President's effort. Christie said,

“What I was saying at the time was, I was asked how the president was doing, I said, he’s doing a good job, he’s kept his word. And so, everybody knows that I have about 95 percent level disagreement with Barack Obama on issues of principle and philosophy. But the fact is we have a job to do. And what people expect from people they elect is to do their job.” (Glueck, 2014).

This move has garnered Christie criticism to this day. However, with the praise, President Obama ensured that the state and local governments would be cared for during this crisis. Obama Said, “ My Message to the governors, as well as the mayors, is anything they need, we will be there.” (Miles, 2014, P. 289). The president’s success in Sandy relief efforts may have propelled him over the edge and elected him to a second term. In his book Strom Surge, Adam Sobel said, “He was in the news for a positive reason, touring the damage and marshaling the resources of the federal government in response to the recovery, instead of exchanging negative remarks with Romney.” (Sobel, 2014, P. 168).


On New Year’s Eve 2019, Dr. Robert Redfield got the first reports of a mysterious illness in China and was immanently on alert. Twenty-three days later, the National Library of Medicine got its first reports of this illness. Soon after, travelers returning from China brought the first cases to American shores. President Trump, at the World Economic Forum, told the nation that they had it under control. In a meeting on January 31, Dr. Antony Fauci informed President Trump and Vice President Pence of the escalation in China, where they began shutting down cities to curb the spread. On March 9th, President Trump was still playing down the effects of the virus, citing its death rate compared to the common flu, but it was too late. March 13th, the crisis hit a fever pitch, and slowly, the world started to change. Schools and businesses shut down, store shelves were vacant, and it was up to the President to lead the country out of the sickness. The Coronavirus Task Force launched at 15 days to slow the spread initiative. During this time, cases rose, and the President received criticism for preparedness but did not want to accept accountably. “I don’t take responsibility at all.” He told Bob Woodward of the Washington Post. He continued, “I just want to get It solved.” (Woodward, 2020, P.288). The President continued to downplay the effects of the virus and beg for a reopening with his advisors. Trump went on a spiral trying to get the cure and make this all disappear.  Trump would continue to grasp at straws to get the country back on track. As stated in the National Library of Medicine (2020), “Watching President Trump's response to the unfolding COVID‐19 pandemic was to observe a leader acting and communicating in a fashion congruent with psychological denial and wishful thinking.” A few weeks before the 2020 election, Trump would contract the virus and subsequently lose the election in a blaze of controversy.


In the 2008 Democratic Primary, Hillary Clinton's campaign released an ad called “3 AM phone Call,” proposing a simple proposition. When a phone in the White House Rings at 3 a.m., who do you want to Answer the call? This message is that voters must decide when to go to the polling booths. Future executives can look to the past when there is a tragedy to lead the country out of whatever has come to shore.


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Boyle, P. G. (1972). The Roots of Isolationism: A Case Study. Journal of American Studies, 6(1), 41–50.

Draper, Robert “Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush” Free Press

Franklin Roosevelt “Fireside Chat 19: On the War with Japan” December 9, 1941

George W. Bush's “Address to the Nation on the Terrorist Attacks” September 11, 2001

Graff, Garrett, “The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11” Simon & Schuster

Jordan, Jonathan “American Warlords: How Roosevelt High Command Led America to Victory in World War 2” Nal Caliber

Lawrence, Mark, “The Vietnam War: A Concise International History” Oxford University Press

Lydon Johnston “ Speech On Vietnam” September 29, 1967

Lydon Johnston “ Address to the National Association of Broadcasters” April 1, 1968

Mandelbaum, M., PHU, T., COREY, P. N., Foster, K., JAMES HANSHAW, S. A., Seagren, C. W., Henderson, D. R., H. Earle, H. E., BARBROOK, R., Aimone, A. C., & Scheck, G. (1982). Vietnam: The Television War. Daedalus, 111(4), 157-169.

Miles, Kathryn “Superstorm: Nine Dies Inside Hurricane Sandy” Dutton

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Parker, C. F., & Stern, E. K. The Trump Administration and the COVID‐19 crisis: Exploring the warning‐response problems and missed opportunities of a public health emergency. Public Administration.

Sobel, Adam “Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy Our Changing Climate and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future” Harper Collins

“There Is No Such Thing As a Natural Disaster: Race, Class and Hurricane Katrina” Routledge.

Woodward, Bob, “Rage” Simon & Schuster

Zuckoff, Mitchell “Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11” Harper Collins

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