Hurricane Dorian gave President Trump an opportunity to show leadership before the 2020 elections
US presidents have always found natural disasters tricky. While the likes of LBJ, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama handled their repercussions well, incumbents like George W Bush and Donald Trump have had ordinary records.
American politics has a close connection with natural disasters. From the country’s top executive -- the president -- down to domestic leaders, leaders in the US have been judged by their responses to and handlings of the fallouts of nature’s fury. Thanks to the explosion in media coverage of presidential responses to natural calamities, the executives also finds it a massive opportunity to test the waters of popular support. For them, it’s an opportunity to express their empathy, co-operation and also command. But there is also a catch: If they fail to make use of the opportunity, they are screwed.
President Donald Trump is having a tricky time with the superstorms threatening America’s eastern seaboard. In September 2017, less than a year after he took office, the Puerto Rico was hit by Cyclone Maria. The hurricane devastated the island, killing nearly 3,000 people and leaving behind a trail of damage the island is yet to deal with. The Republican president, however, did not budge from his familiar ways.
The maverick individual in Trump, instead of showing sympathy for the beleagured Puerto Ricans, took on the local authorities, bashing them left, right and centre. He tried to show that his administration did all it could to cater to Puerto-Rico’s post-hurricane needs. He also did his best to portray local authorities as “incompetent” and targeted Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of San Juan. Even when the latest hurricane to hit the US -- Dorian -- threatened Puerto Rico, Trump called it “one of the most corrupt places on earth” even while making an emergency declaration for the territory. He said the US Congress approved billions of dollars that only landed in the hands of “Crooked Pols”. A visibly frustrated president said ahead of Dorian’s predicted landfall on Puerto Rico: “Will it never end?"
Natural disasters give today’s presidents a PR opportunity
When it comes to natural disasters, and particularly to Puerto Rico, Trump contradicts the popular idea American presidents try to drive home: display empathy and cooperation. He instead makes it a more complex issue of negative identity politics that fuels the demand for regional and emotional statehood. Trump has said a clear “no” to Puerto Rico’s statehood claims and experts believe the Republicans do not favour the fillip it would give Democrats.
George W Bush was blown away by Katrina
In August 2005, the devastating Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, paralysing a major part of the seaboard and resulting in a large loss of life. But George W Bush was holidaying at his sprawling ranch in Texas and it battered his image and eroded all the positivity he garered post 9/11.
Bush eventually decided to cut short his vacation after realizing the extent of the devastation Katrina left behind. While returning to Washington DC, Bush made Force One fly over the affected areas and photographs of a grim-faced president taking in the scenes of devastation were published. The idea was to help Bush earn some sympathy, but the public relations exercise did not work as the public saw the president as detached. Bush said in a TV interview years after completing his final term that his handling of Katrina was a mistake. At the time rapper Kanye West accused Bush of ignoring Katrina because he "didn't care about black people".
There were presidents who handled it better
But not all president tend to fumble the handling of natural diasters. Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama made few missteps. In 1992, as he campaigned for his first term as president, Clinton's “I feel your pain” served as an instant bridge with disaster victims. In 1993, Clinton visited Iowa to see the extent of damage caused by floods and was seen shaking hands with those affected as well as National Guard personnel, boosting the media profile of both victims and saviours. He was heard saying sorry to a woman whose house was flooded and comforted a woman who broke down because of her plight, saying: “Hang in there”.lso a politi
The next Democratic president Obama also did well. In 2011, when a tornado hit Joplin, Mississippi, Obama paid a visit to the affected area and delivered an emotional message saying: “It’s in these moments, through our actions, that we often see the glimpse of what makes life worth living in the first place.” Also the next year, as Hurricane Sandy slammed into New Jersey, Obama responded to the state’s Republican governor Chris Christie’s invitation and exhibited camaraderie despite party differences.
LBJ had set a precedent in 1965
Another president who set a precedent for his successors to follow was Lyndon B Johnson. LBJ acted swiftly after Hurricane Betsy rattled New Orleans, Louisiana, and was on the ground among the ruins within 24 hours. There was also a political angle to this. LBJ had lost Louisiana in the 1964 presidential election but understood that a well-timed visit to the state after Betsy’s landfall could see him turning the tables in 1968. LBJ didn’t eventually contest the 1968 elections, but his quick response to Hurricane Betsy, a Category 4 storm, was a trend-setter.
Trump's image takes a battering with every storm
Trump hasn’t chosen to follow Johnson, Clinton or Obama. That Trump did not meet victims of Hurricane Harvey in Texas just months after taking office was another gesture that earned him brickbats.
Trump was also slammed for playing golf at his Virginia golf club for two days in a row. Even the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, with whom Trump doesn’t enjoy a cordial relationship, was heard mocking the latter saying the American president was dealing with a hurricane at the golf club.
Launching a scathing attack on Trump who had accused Obama in the past of trivialising matters in times of danger by playing golf, an analytical piece in the CNN noted: “But at this point in his presidency -- and his life -- Trump’s hypocrisy is so well-proven as to be almost mundane. He believes that is governed by different rules than literally everyone else. That what’s good for the goose is definitely not good for the gander. This is bad. It is also not new.”
The president has not found too many supporters in the media during his Dorian conundrum and hence took to Twitter to defend himself.
But just as every crisis is an opportunity, Dorian gave the mercurial president a golden opportunity to redraw his strategy and PR exercise ahead of the first caucus of the 2020 election season. A little empathy and co-operation and Trump could have seen himself as the nation’s comforter-in-chief. One compassionate speech or a little hug would have done wonders to his bid for a second term. But as the old saying goes: We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.