President Obama is in Europe this week to discuss economic and security issues, but his long-planned voyage has been overshadowed by the devastation in Joplin, Mo., where the single deadliest tornado in history has killed 117 people.
This is not the first time one of Obama's international trips has been eclipsed by a disaster. Several of his previous voyages have been cursed by Mother Nature and other unforeseen circumstances.
The president also couldn't fly to the funeral of Polish President Lech Kaczynski in April 2010 because of volcanic ash emitting from Iceland. He had to cut his November Indonesia trip short for the same reason. This week, an Icelandic ash cloud -- albeit from a different volcano -- forced the president and his staff to leave Ireland a day earlier than planned.
While forces of nature are out of a president's control, the way an administration shapes the commander in chief's travels can have a significant impact on public perception.
"There just needs to be [awareness] to being extremely sensitive and conscious of photo ops or pictures or events that could be put right next to a photo or pictures or videos of events in the United States that would create a distance between the two," said Christopher Lehane, a political consultant and crisis communications expert who served in President Clinton's administration. "You need to be sensitive abut typical toasts and enjoying certain types of activities at a time when people in this country may be suffering or hurt."
The president may not be in the United States at a time when residents of Joplin are recovering from the after effects of the tornado, but the issue has been forefront in his briefings and speeches. Obama spoke to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director Craig Fugate and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon earlier today to get an update on the situation. He also addressed the devastation in his remarks in England and will visit the storm-ravaged city on Sunday.
It's not just Mother Nature and other manmade disasters that have cast clouds on Obama's trips. International crisis also seems to follow the president whenever he leaves the United States.
Images of the president playing soccer with kids as the situation in Libya worsened did not bode well for public perception, and the White House was quick to emphasize that the president was holding regular briefings on Libya. The White House even canceled a tour of the Maya ruins in El Salvador, where the president was later headed, for that reason.
"There's a whole sort of choreographing that you want to do to make sure you're communicating that you really care," Lehane said. "It's not just the optics, it's not just how you're perceived out there. It is actually whether you're doing the job and whether the government is responding in the right away."
President George W. Bush learned that lesson in 2005, when he was widely panned for simply flying over Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi in Air Force One after Hurricane Katrina -- without making a stop -- on his way to a fundraiser. The two-term president later admitted that he had paid a political price for the photo op that many said made him appear detached, and that it was a "huge mistake."
International trips in themselves are carefully scripted events, from what the president and family members -- if they accompany him -- wear to whom they meet to how they are introduced and to the places they visit.
"The 'run of show,' as they say, in any typical movie or film or play, it's so carefully scripted and I think the presidency woud put those to shame in terms of the level of detail, the infrastructure that goes into it," Lehane said. "There's almost nothing that happens that people don't already know is going to happen in advance."
Mother Nature Casts Cloud on Obama's International Trips
International trips for presidents have become more important in recent years as the global economy becomes more connected. At the same time, opposition parties have increasingly exploited such trips for political gains.
Republicans, and even some liberal Democrats, took much issue with Obama's trip to accept his Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 on the taxpayers dime. Many didn't think the president was deserving of the world's most prestigious award, especially at a time when he was overseeing one of the longest wars in U.S. history.
Although these presidential trips may at times appear insignificant to the ordinary eye, experts say they have important policy ramifications. Canceling them can often cause ire in the host country, and delay important negotiations.
Presidents also run the risk of offending their international allies if they cancel. Obama's two cancellations to Indonesia caused disappointment in the country that has become one of the United States' most crucial partners in the Muslim world.
Officials said they felt snubbed by the multiple cancellations, and U.S. critics used the opportunity to rile their supporters.