President Donald Trump has clearly invested a vast amount of time and effort convincing Americans that as their chief executive he is clearly on top of properly managing the government response to Hurricane Harvey’s desolation.
By all reports from the scene this impression has accurately reflected reality there. And, no offense to print journalists, that is largely attributed to the optics, photos and video.
Strangely though, this probably won’t do much of anything to improve his historically low job approval ratings. What it will do, however, is eliminate a major opportunity for critics to unload on his alleged incompetence.
For all the human hurt in these disasters, from a political point of view they do present a golden opportunity for government officials to shine and to benefit politically in their responses. It is, after all, their responsibility, despite the reality that by the time disaster strikes and flees, it’s pretty late for them to have any impact. Beyond showing concern.
Or they can look very bad to many, though the damage is not as bad as you might think. More on that later.
President Barack Obama often seemed tone-deaf in his reactions to bad news. When he was invisible during the night in 2012 that four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, were murdered in Benghazi, he held a short photo-op next day in the Rose Garden to vow swift justice to the perps, which we are still awaiting.
Obama then flew off to Las Vegas for several campaign fundraisers. When the first American was beheaded on camera during Obama’s vacation, he again made a brief statement to vow swift justice, then went golfing with NBA buddies. Same when Afghan insiders killed the first U.S. general in combat in years.
Obama was also tardy visiting the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 after Deepwater Horizon, the nation’s worst oil spill, which sympathetic media didn’t bother to point out. The reality, of course, is that his visit would have done absolutely nothing about the damage.
With the characteristic luck of Obama’s career, Hurricane Sandy then walloped the Northeast just before the 2012 election. That enabled him to make a tour of ravaged areas and be seen comforting survivors. Mitt Romney was left to issue sympathetic statements.
With a megaphone, George W. Bush performed impressively at the site in the aftermath of 9/11. But he’s taken considerable heat for not visiting New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The reasonable reason: The presence of any president would remove resources, close roads and detract from rescue operations.
In the vicinity anyway, Bush did order Air Force One to fly over the ravaged area to get a sense for the miles-upon-miles of coastal devastation. The huge mistake of his communications team was putting out a photo of Bush doing just that, looking down from the plane window like an insensitive monarch. A photo that requires explanation is always a bad photo.
The federal Katrina response was also complicated by an incompetent governor and mayor. Later research found Bush’s Katrina handling pushed his job approval down about 1.4 points, not good because it was already sinking from legislative setbacks and the Iraq war. But not awful.
Which brings us to the whole point of these disaster preparations: Photographs.
Months before hurricane or wildfire seasons, savvy governors and presidents like Trump and Obama, cross town for staged briefings that could as easily be done at the White House. But a presidential movement requires photos of them at briefings.
Before Harvey even reached shore, Trump issued a disaster declaration. He choppered off for a Camp David weekend. But we got his urgent tweets about prep and photos of video-conference calls with Texas and his team.
Critics delightedly made much of Trump not visiting a flooded Houston home to console a family and the rally tone of his pleased remarks on the crowd size. But here’s the painful reality straight from this lifelong print journalist: Those written words might as well have blown away by Harvey’s 140-mile-an-hour gusts.
It’s the photos that matter. Trump with the governor. Trump thanking first responders. Trump holding high the flag of an unvanquished Texas. On his return to Houston Saturday we got photos of the Trumps mingling with children and parents.
The impact of pictures is not new. During the Battle of Britain, Prime Minister Winston Churchill would walk London’s rubble-strewn streets chewing his cigar and tipping his bowler. Whatever he thought during those darkest days, the pictures showed a confident Winnie rallying countrymen.
And CBS’ Lesley Stahl tells the revealing tale of once doing a hard-hitting “60 Minutes” piece on how America’s elderly were suffering under President Reagan’s policies.
Soon after, Reagan’s chief strategist, Michael Deaver, thanked her profusely for the piece. He was most pleased, he said, because viewers would remember none of her words. But etched in their minds were images of Reagan talking and listening sympathetically to seniors.
Same for Trump’s comments on crowd size.
Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm.