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Trump's turn to face tricky politics of natural disasters

  • Published at 10:30 pm August 29th, 2017
Trump's turn to face tricky politics of natural disasters

George W Bush never recovered from his flyover of Hurricane Katrina's devastation. Barack Obama got a bipartisan boost late in his re-election campaign for his handling of Superstorm Sandy, reports the Associated Press.

Now, US President Donald Trump confronts the political risks and potential gains that come with leading the federal government's response to a deadly and destructive natural disaster. Hurricane Harvey, the massive storm that has dumped torrents of rain across Texas – flooding Houston and other cities – is the first major natural disaster of Trump's presidency, and the yet-to-be-determined scope of the damage appears likely to require a years-long federal project.

Trump, who is suffering through a long stretch of low approval ratings, has been particularly eager to seize the moment. He will visit Texas Tuesday – and may return to the region again on Saturday. The White House announced the first visit even before Harvey made landfall. On Monday, Trump promised Texans will "have what you need" and that federal funding would come "fast."

The president's unconventional style has still oozed out. Trump sent about two dozen tweets about the storm since Friday, marvelling at the size of the hurricane and cheering on emergency responders: "You are doing a great job - the world is watching!"

Indeed, he argued Monday he specifically timed his controversial pardon of former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio to capitalise on all the viewers tuned into storm coverage. The Friday night pardon wasn't an attempt to hide the news, he said: "I assumed the ratings would be higher."

Trump advisers are well-aware that the hurricane poses a significant test for the White House, which has largely been mired in crises of its own making during Trump's first seven months in office, including the president's widely criticised response to white supremacist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Politics of natural disasters

The optics of a president's initial response to a natural disaster can be long-lasting.

Bush was haunted by his now-infamous declaration that then-FEMA Director Michael Brown was doing "a heckuva job" - a statement that appeared wildly off base after the full scope of the devastation became clear. Images of Bush peering down at the flooding in New Orleans from Air Force One also furthered the impression that he was detached from the horrific conditions on the ground.

Trump has played storm politics before. During his campaign, he rushed to Louisiana, in his signature "Make America Great Again" hat, to view damage from massive flooding. Trump made it to the battered neighborhoods before Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and while President Barack Obama was vacationing.

On its own, a successful federal response to Hurricane Harvey is unlikely to reshape Trump's presidency. But with his approval rating perilously low, it could help Trump convince some Americans that he has the capability to lead the nation through difficult moments.

Trump's predecessors have also benefited from the political opportunities that can arise after natural disasters.