Crises, and especially natural disasters, create a special 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. While later on, White House muscle can be important, the first days are a time when there’s little to do but play the role of president.
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.
The sympathetic moments are often the most memorable. Think of Ronald Reagan’s poignant remarks upon the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger: “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’” Think of the image of Barack Obama hugging a woman whose business was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.
Think even of George W. Bush’s appearance at Ground Zero on September 14, 2001. It’s best remembered for his ad-libbed remark, “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!” But Bush began his brief remarks with sympathy and mourning. “I want you all to know that America today, America today is on bended knee, in prayer for the people whose lives were lost here, for the workers who work here, for the families who mourn,” he said.
When leaders fail 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.
Hurricane Harvey thus creates a challenge for President Trump, a man who is at home revving up a crowd and celebrating American greatness, but who almost never publicly displays sympathy or empathy. So far, Trump’s response has been tonally peculiar and heavy on the inspiration. He has extolled the nation’s ability to recover, and he has repeatedly expressed awe, both at the power of the storm and at the ratings it has produced. But he has not shown much in the way of sympathy. It’s unclear how the public will rate his unorthodox approach.
Ahead of the storm’s landfall, Trump offered a terse “good luck” as he boarded a helicopter for Camp David. The White House produced a flurry of pictures and readouts chronicling how the president kept tabs on the storm over the weekend. In tweets, he focused heavily on the size of the storm, which seemed to amaze him as much as it did anyone else: “125 MPH winds!” “Many people are now saying that this is the worst storm/hurricane they have ever seen. Good news is that we have great talent on the ground.” “Wow - Now experts are calling
#Harvey a once in 500 year flood!” “HISTORIC rainfall in Houston, and all over Texas. Floods are unprecedented, and more rain coming. Spirit of the people is incredible.Thanks!”
In his first public remarks, on Monday, he worked to lift up more than console. To be fair, he began by saying, “I want to begin today by extending my thoughts and prayers for those affected by Hurricane Harvey and the catastrophe of flooding and all of the other difficulties that they're currently going through.” But most of his remarks were more on the inspirational end of the spectrum:
Tragic times such as these bring out the best in America's character. Strength, charity, and resilience are those characters. We see neighbor helping neighbor, friend helping friend, and stranger helping stranger. And you see that all over. If you watch on television, you just see such incredible work and love, and teamwork. We are one American family. We hurt together, we struggle together, and, believe me, we endure together. We are one family.
He continued in this vein: “Nothing can defeat the unbreakable spirit of the people of Texas and Louisiana,” he said. “We will get through this. We will come out stronger.” It was some of the most unifying rhetoric Trump has used at any time in his presidency.
In Texas, on Tuesday, Trump continued to fixate on both the size of the storm and the number of people paying attention to it, and to hit the inspirational notes.
“This was of epic proportion,” he said. “No one has ever seen anything like this.” He added: “This recovery is going to be frustrating. We're going to be here to navigate you through it.”
Other presidential comments were headscratchers, like saying of Harvey: “It sounds like such an innocent name, Ben, right, but it’s not innocent.”
Hurricanes are, of course, major media events, and if there’s one thing that fascinates Trump, it’s television spectacles and ratings. Trump called out FEMA Administrator Brock Long, who “really has become very famous on television in the last couple of days.”
Something strange happened during Trump’s visit by a fire department in Corpus Christi. According to pool reporter David McSwane of the The Dallas Morning News, “Trump did an impromptu rally type speech in front of a few hundred Trump supporters who somehow managed to know exactly where the president was doing the briefing.” Trump reveled in the audience—“What a crowd, what a turnout”—and he again struck a tone of supportiveness: “I love you, you are special, we're here to take care of you. It's going well.”
What Trump didn’t do much of was mourning the dead, from the ordinary civilians killed in the storm to Houston Police Sergeant Steve Perez, who drowned on the job. Nor did the president spend a lot of time hugging waterlogged homeowners. Trump loves the rah-rah cheerleading that comes with disaster duty, but displays of sympathy and empathy just don’t seem to come naturally to him, at least in public settings. Like many presidents, Trump has a clear mean streak; unlike most presidents, he’s been happy to show it publicly. He loves to attack, he loves to joust, and he loves to lecture, but he doesn’t seem to feel as comfortable talking about the softer emotions.
One notable exception comes to mind. Trump often speaks sympathetically when recalling Kate Steinle, a woman shot and killed in San Francisco in 2015 by an unauthorized immigrant, and other people killed or injured by unauthorized immigrants. During the campaign, his discussion of these people were often among the most emotional moments of his rallies. A cynic might argue that this was disingenuous, and that he was simply speaking about these people in the service of bashing immigrants, but for the purposes of this discussion, that’s irrelevant: The point is that when he wishes to do so, Trump is able to perform sympathy on the public stage.
But in the case of Harvey, Trump has thus far not decided to do so. Speaking to the press, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said that he had seen “genuine compassion” from Trump as they reviewed the damage. “The president was heartbroken about what he saw,” Abbott said. In the absence of any public display, Abbott’s testimony would have to suffice.