Why you should care
Because this storm could shake up the midterm calculus.
Hurricanes are inherently political, chances for presidents and governors to rise above partisanship, don a custom-made jacket and help those in need. These carefully choreographed moments can make you, as when Barack Obama visited the Jersey Shore after Hurricane Sandy in the waning days of the 2012 campaign and was warmly welcomed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie — leaving Mitt Romney’s camp fuming.
They can break you, such as George W. Bush’s “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” pat on the back for an inept Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator in the 2005 Hurricane Katrina aftermath. Shortly after Katrina hit, Bush’s Gallup approval rating stood at 46 percent — but it started to dwindle as the recovery effort’s shortcomings became clear, and Bush never again reached those heights during his presidency.
His father suffered a windblown setback too, with a halting federal recovery after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, says: “No question it hurt Bush when he was already struggling against Bill Clinton. Bush still carried Florida, but the situation was viewed by many voters across the country as more evidence that Bush had run out of gas.” After Hurricane Betsy in 1965, Princeton University presidential historian Julian Zelizer recalls, Louisiana Sen. Russell Long tried to convince President Lyndon B. Johnson to make time in his busy schedule for a visit. “If you go there right now, Mr. President,” Long said, “they couldn’t beat you if Eisenhower ran!” He went.
At least Hurricane Florence, drenching the Carolinas over the weekend, offers Donald Trump a respite from news about former campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s plea deal with federal prosecutors and an opportunity to lead during a natural disaster. With the midterms fast approaching, Trump’s approval rating is at a low ebb, in the face of criminal investigations and fresh revelations about his chaotic White House. Trump canceled political rallies, staged emergency briefings and looked the part of a president prepping for a storm.
— Mark Knoller (@markknoller) September 13, 2018
But he also indulged his worst conspiracy theory impulses, claiming the widely accepted death tolls from last year’s Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico were made up to hurt him politically.
…..This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico. If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 13, 2018
This nonsense even earned Trump a rebuke from Republicans such as Florida Gov. Rick Scott — who’s locked in a pivotal U.S. Senate race where Puerto Rican voters could be the deciding factor. It’s no small matter when the Senate could be in play.
Trump’s storm-related political fortunes could hinge on how local officials react to his administration’s performance. And in this climate, it’s hard to imagine North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a purple-state Democrat, embracing Trump á la Christie and Obama.
The most memorable image from Trump’s Puerto Rico response last year was of the president tossing paper towels into a crowd with nonchalance. But this is about more than optics: A year later, the island is still rebuilding. So Trump resorts again to challenging accepted facts that don’t reflect well on him. But reality distortion has its limits.
Whether FEMA is heroic or shambolic in the coming days and weeks, you can bet Trump will paint it as a triumph. Will deluged North Carolinians agree?