Disasters and tragedies have been formative chapters in nearly every modern American presidency. Former President Ronald Reagan urged a national reverence for those lost in the Challenger disaster. Former President Lyndon B. Johnson rallied a grief-stricken people with the famous phrase, “Let us continue.” Former President Bill Clinton knew the road to healing would be long after the Oklahoma City bombing — still, he said, “We must begin.” Even former President George W. Bush promised the American people that the terrorist organizations responsible for 9/11 would “hear all of us soon.” And former President Obama sang with parishioners after the Charleston attack. President Donald Trump greeted us with more wise words: “Great crowd, great turnout,” “A great book by a great guy, highly recommend” and, finally, “Nobody’s ever seen this much water.”
Now, it would of course be premature to criticize Trump’s response to the hurricane effort as a whole, considering the relief effort has in large part just begun. But as first responders, NGOs and individual volunteers make their way to Houston to rescue victims and abate further damage, the president must remember that his response to this disaster will largely characterize the retroactive view of his presidential performance as a whole. Ostensibly, if you believe in Trump’s business acumen (a notion I think his track record speaks soundly against) then this sort of situation is exactly what you would expect him to master: multiple moving parts, fast-paced coordination, delegating responsibility, pleasing survivors as customers of the government they pay into and rely on.
But other than a lackluster and remarkably unempathetic visit bookended by a meeting with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Trump appears to be mastering nothing but another one of Twitter’s armchair volunteers, a removed cheerleader — congratulating first responders, thanking the involved, and not getting any more or less involved than political decorum requires. Trump has a real chance to prove himself at the one thing he outwardly and constantly claims to do well — managing. That chance is quickly dissipating. Those who support the president, and who lent him the mandate to govern, should remind him of that mandate. Trump feeds off of his supporters — so tell him to start allocating funding, managing relief, sticking around during briefings and paying attention as one of the country’s largest cities sinks under 50 inches of water.
Even Abbott stated, politely but pointedly, that he expects the president to be “very concerned about what he sees, about the damage Texas has suffered.” Even from a supporting member of his party, the message to Trump is clear: Do more.
The presidency has always maintained the ethos of a parental role over the nation at large; the aforementioned former presidents each served as a moral leader, a rock in times of crisis, a figure to look to for unity and national strength. Whether Trump has ever embodied any of these virtues is up to individual interpretation; mine, of course, is a resounding no. However, just as Trump so acutely perceived (and gleefully tweeted about) during Obama’s response to Hurricane Sandy, national disasters and tragedies often result in boons for presidential approval ratings — and this disaster gives Trump a real chance to change the course of the narrative from his recent string of faux pas and failures (and a shoddily handled, ill-advised pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio) to demonstrate what he advertised to supporters on the campaign: a straightforward, management-minded leader capable of doing things right and doing them quickly. But as we have observed, empathy is not one of the president’s strong suits, nor is detailed coordination (Re: the half-staffed State Department.) Nonetheless, Houston stands to benefit greatly if the president uses his federal power efficiently, listens to his advisors, attends briefing meetings and possibly — even barely — demonstrates real concern for the city of Houston. And perhaps he will. Time to show out, Mr. President. The nation is watching.
Lily Vaughan is a junior majoring in history and political science. Her column,“Playing Politics,” runs every Friday.