A well-handled disaster can reinforce and strengthen an incumbent president. And on the condition that it is not well handled, an incumbent and a serving president will certainly and definitely live to regret it. Political leaders who know their onions are intelligent enough to employ times of crisis to bond with brokenhearted and anguished fellow citizens. As an effect of this, campaigns are calculatingly cancelled. Foreign and local trips are knowingly cancelled. And imperative political meetings are usually cancelled, so that presidents can identify with those who are inconsolable.
When President Barack Obama did wipe a tear as he spoke about reducing gun violence when he was in power, he cried not because he was a spineless leader, but he cried because he was an empathic leader. He sat where the people were sitting. It impacts positively on a president’s reputation when he or she knows how to sit where the citizens are sitting. But when a leader detaches himself or herself from those who are going through a time of crisis, they hardly recover from it.
As soon as you hear the word empathy, what comes to your mind? Empathy is what you feel when you step outside of yourself and experience another person’s emotions, conflicts, or aspirations from their vantage point—and research has shown that it’s hard-wired in all of us. The connections formed by our ability to feel empathy for others is what allows us to build healthy relationships, which are an essential—which are an essential part of our mental health. In other words, a president should be able to step outside of himself or herself and experience what his or her citizens’ are experiencing, especially during times of crisis.
Crises, and especially natural disasters, create a special and an out of the ordinary kind of challenge for any politician, but especially for a president. There’s very little that a national leader can do in the early days of a disaster; much of the initial response is organized ahead of time or devolved to state and local authorities. After all these (and more) have been done, a president is still expected to personally bond with the affected citizens by traveling to where they are, no matter how far the place is. The president is not allowed to delegate those in his or her cabinet to do this. By jetting out to the place, it would show that the president is empathic and no callous.
For the umpteenth time, most presidents try to strike two modes: sympathy and inspiration. They go to the site, they shake hands, they hug victims, and they offer words of consolation; they also offer soaring rhetoric about the power of community, the resilience of Americans, and the determination to bounce back. Think of the image of Barack Obama hugging a woman whose business was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. Also, think of George Bush’s appearance at Ground Zero on September 14, 2001. It’s best remembered for his adlibbed remark, “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people who knocked you these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” When a president fails to show sympathy, it can grievously undermine their public standing. Four years later, Bush was widely viewed as detached during his handling of Hurricane Katrina (especially in a photo of him looking out the window of Air Force One), and his reputation never recovered.
When a president fails to be empathic, it will be so apparent and evident to all that he or she is detached from his or her people as the case of President Buhari when Fulani headsmen murdered seventy-three (73) Benue people. Immediately the news began to grow wings, flying everywhere in Nigeria, I expected Mr. President to stop all he was doing and jump on one of our helicopters and embark on a short trip to the site. It was a golden opportunity for PMB to bond with not only the people of Benue, but every Nigerian. The reputation of Mr. President would have become as tall as mount-Everest, but he failed to bond with the precious citizens of Nigeria, who were mourning. This has impacted negatively on the reputation of President Buhari. And I hope he is able to recover from this costly slip-up.
Mr. President needs to be told that he is not in power to only invite people to come to where he is; he too is expected to go out to meet with people, especially when a disaster hits a part of the country. Inviting the Executive Governor of Benue State to Aso Rock to see him was a very wrong decision. He was supposed to travel to Benue State to see him. Aso-Rock isn’t either Mecca or Jerusalem—that religious people go to—to worship. The seat of power isn’t a tourism centre. Even the blind can see that President Buhari’s handlers aren’t doing a good job. If it is not too late, I do unassumingly advice Mr. President to still travel to the site, so he can bond with the good people of Benue. This will impact positively on his reputation as an incumbent President.