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Opinion: After ‘no comment,’ Biden’s response to Maui will be key


Opinion By Julian Zelizer, CNN

(CNN) — President Joe Biden is going to visit Hawaii on Monday, as survivors of the Maui fire that killed at least 111 people and nearly leveled the town of Lahaina are criticizing the emergency response for being inadequate. (Hawaii Gov. Josh Green told CNN that there were “probably still over 1,000” people unaccounted for).

Biden will be traveling with first lady Jill Biden and meeting with survivors and first responders, along with federal, state and local officials, according to White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

Despite approving the federal disaster declaration, maintaining regular contact with the Hawaii governor and calling the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which has mobilized resources from food and water to financial assistance, Biden was criticized for saying, “No comment” last weekend when reporters asked him about the rising death toll after the president made a stop at a beach in Delaware.

Republicans have pounced. Former President Donald Trump — who himself was attacked for the way that he handled several disasters, including when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017— released a video stating: “To say ‘no comment’ is oftentimes fine but to be smiling when you say it, especially against such a tragedy as this, is absolutely horrible and unacceptable.”

To be sure, messaging was never Biden’s strong suit; he is known more for his gaffes and verbal stumbles than soaring rhetoric, and he has worked hard to dial down the incessant noise that came from the White House when Trump was in office. While Biden’s aides have been quick to say that the president is focused on the actual needs of the survivors on the ground, rhetoric is important, and public silence can hurt a president.

Most famously, President George W. Bush faced an intense backlash following Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. As the brutal storm bore down on Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida, Democrats criticized the administration’s response, slamming Bush for failing to devote sufficient resources to save New Orleans as the city went under water. He didn’t say enough or do enough. And when he did speak up, his comments were often poorly received. When Bush publicly praised Michael Brown, the head of FEMA by saying, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” it didn’t sit well with residents who were watching conditions on the ground continually deteriorate. A photograph of him sitting on Air Force One flying above New Orleans turned into a symbol of his indifference. Bush later admitted that the image resulted in voters seeing him as “detached and uncaring, no question about it.” The racial composition of the city — New Orleans has a majority Black population — fueled the perception that the Republican White House was simply not concerned about non-White citizens. The failures of the response impacted how voters perceived Bush’s leadership skills and the governing competence of the GOP more broadly.

Other presidents have wrestled with the perception problems in the wake of natural disasters. George W. Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush, came under fire for being too slow after Hurricane Andrew devastated Florida in the summer of 1992. President Barack Obama was also criticized for being too slow after an oil spill wreaked havoc in the Gulf Coast in 2010. In addition to Puerto Rico, Trump was widely condemned for his chaotic and unreliable statements as the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded.

When disasters strike, presidents need to tackle the situation on at least three different fronts. Federal support for the local response is paramount, which Biden has been working on. Broader public policy decisions — whether that be addressing climate change or FEMA’s shortfalls — are also essential. The climate provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act have been some of the strongest initiatives thus far to push the nation toward renewable energy. Without the first two elements, presidents are only putting band-aids on whatever went wrong.

But the third part, the public-facing response — whether it be meeting with survivors, surveying the damage or making speeches and formal statements — matters as well. The public wants to see a president who can lead the nation through a crisis. They seek elected officials who can stay in control amidst the chaos and help those who need it. They look for presidents who can address the nation and do so with the kind of presence that President Ronald Reagan had after the Space Shuttle Challenger crashed in 1986. He helped the nation mourn when he gave one of his most moving speeches on television and said, “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”

Biden has a chance to right some of the missteps and take a more assertive role, without becoming an overwhelming presence. With this trip, Biden needs to demonstrate that the federal government will be making sure Hawaii can recover and rebuild, and that he will work with Congress to address the underlying causes. And Biden should offer hope and moral support to the survivors — a task that shouldn’t be difficult, given that he is known for his empathy. While he might not match Reagan, he certainly can’t afford to make the mistakes that George W. Bush did.

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