How a president handles a major natural disaster can have a long-lasting effect on their approval while in office and their lasting reputation. Former President Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath that followed still haunts his legacy, but it’s possible that no president has approached the contemporary challenges of natural disasters like current President Trump. While Bush and Obama may have handled their respective disasters with varying amounts of care, they treated the incidences with a heavy level of solemnity. Trump, as with most issues he tackles, has reacted with bombast and a somewhat puzzling eagerness.
This could in some part be due to the state of his approval ratings. When Hurricane Harvey hit in late August, President Trump’s ratings hovered in the low to mid-40s according to adjusted polling. A visit to Texas was announced before the hurricane had even touched down, and he boasted that “We will come out stronger and believe me, we will be bigger, better, stronger than ever before.” The flurry of tweets that came from the President indicated that he was engaged with the nature of Harvey, but between messages of encouragement for emergency responders, he commented enthusiastically about how large and powerful the storm was.
But it was an earlier storm during his administration that could signal how this president could handle future disasters. When back to back hurricanes hit Puerto Rico in 2017, many derided the response. With 3,000 dead as a result of these storms, intense scrutiny was applied both to Trump’s perceived lack of decorum and the logistical response of FEMA. A year later, when accusations about mishandling of the disasters resurfaced, Trump responded by attacking the government of Puerto Rico for mishandling the funds and praised the response as “magnificent.”
But the real story is in the polls. Whereas the disasters handled by Obama and Bush had a significant impact on their public approval, Trump’s numbers have remained more or less steady regardless. Without the court of public opinion to temper the behaviors of a president, there’s little incentive to change how disasters are handled, and all indications seem to suggest that the court of public opinion are in a perpetual deadlock as far as Trump is concerned. That means that business will likely continue as usual for FEMA and the Trump administration, for better or worse.