In needlessly picking a fight over his handling of last year’s hurricanes, President Trump almost certainly has squandered a precious opportunity to shore up his political standing by demonstrating sure command of the federal response to this year’s storms. His stumble, an unforced error that came in the form of a petulant tweet, surprised his own aides and diverted attention from the government’s response to Hurricane Florence just as the then-Category 4 storm bore down on the North Carolina coast.
The Thursday morning tweet blaming Democrats for what he sees as an inflated death toll from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico overshadowed his many meetings and preparations for Florence. Potentially more harmful, it revived legitimate questions about his administration’s competence in overseeing the island’s recovery last year.
Trump’s predecessors in the Oval Office all learned, often painfully, that hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and national traumas like shootings can inflict lasting political damage to them. But they also can help. President Obama was locked in a tight battle with Republican Mitt Romney in 2012 when Superstorm Sandy struck the East Coast. The president suspended his campaign, oversaw the recovery efforts, and flew to New Jersey, where his response was praised by Republican officials. Gallup at the time showed 70 percent approval for his actions, in line with the 67 percent found by the Pew Research Center. As The New Yorker noted at the time, Obama was leading in only four of nine polls taken the week before Sandy. In the week after Sandy, he led in all seven national polls taken. Seventeen years earlier, President Clinton, who had been reeling and arguing his relevancy after Democratic losses in the midterms, revived his presidency with a strong showing leading the nation’s response to the Oklahoma City bombing.
Other presidents have felt the sting of public rebuke after their responses were seen as falling short. President George H.W. Bush was sharply criticized after Hurricane Andrew devastated Florida in 1992. Thrown on the defensive, Bush had to fight for the state he had won comfortably in 1988. He went from a 22.4 point win there to a narrow 1.9 point escape. Even more damage was done to President George W. Bush when his response to Hurricane Katrina was sharply faulted in 2005.
Pew’s numbers show that Katrina was the tipping point for Bush’s public approval. He never recovered from the hurricane’s aftermath. As Bush was leaving office, Pew reported that “what might have damaged Bush’s legacy most was his administration’s mixed record of competent governance.” When Katrina was coupled with his conduct of two wars, Pew stated, “the government ‘brand’ deteriorated badly during the Bush years.” When voters were asked to describe Bush in a word, only 21 percent said “incompetent” in 2004. By 2008, that had more than doubled to 56 percent.
That is the warning to Trump. It is too early in his administration for polling comparisons similar to Bush’s. The early numbers are not promising though. In April, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 56 percent of Americans said his administration was not competent. If his responses to storms are viewed as less than competent, that will feed into a public preconception and he will find it hard to recover. As Stephen H. Hess, a veteran of the Eisenhower and Nixon White Houses, told National Journal, people view tornadoes and hurricanes as federal responsibilities and pay attention to the government response. That is partially why it is counterproductive for Trump to use tweets to remind Americans of the criticisms of his 2017 response in Puerto Rico.
That also is damaging because Trump, unlike most presidents, cannot fall back on the goodwill generated by his meetings with victims of the storms. Tours of disasters have been a presidential staple ever since Lyndon B. Johnson went to New Orleans hours after Hurricane Betsy struck in 1965. Standing in a darkened shelter with no electricity, Johnson shined a flashlight into his face and told the frightened evacuees, “I am your president. I am here to make sure you have the help you need.” That was the message of the eight presidents between LBJ and Trump, often delivered with heart-wrenching pictures. There was Ronald Reagan donning rubber boots and wading into deep mud to help volunteers fill sandbags during flooding in Oklahoma. And Clinton tenderly embracing a sobbing woman trying to get water in Des Moines after the Great Flood of 1993.
Such displays of empathy come harder for Trump. For him, the enduring image is him playfully tossing rolls of paper towels—which he later described as “beautiful, soft towels”—to victims. And the enduring memories of his tours of devastated areas in Texas and Puerto Rico were giving himself high grades, inviting officials to praise him, and spending little time with actual victims. Again, this behavior is at odds with how previous presidents handled criticism.
In 1992, George H.W. Bush refused to fight back against criticism of the Andrew response, trying to keep the focus on people in need. When local officials were among the critics, the president gave them a pass. “I understand that,” he said. “These people have been up all night. They’ve been worried about their constituency. … They’re wondering how their people are going to be fed. So I can understand tempers flaring.” After Katrina, his son similarly refused to engage with critics. “I take responsibility” for any mistakes, said George W. Bush.
Thirteen years later, Trump sees no mistakes and no need to take any responsibility. In his now-famous Thursday tweet, he denied any problems and dismissed criticisms as being “done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible …”