It’s undeniable that President Trump’s public approval has improved since the moment Hurricane Harvey came ashore in Texas the last week of August; polls showed his popularity up by approximately 2 points. The period marks the first sustained period of improvement in the president’s public approval standing since his inauguration. While correlation is certainly not causation, in this case there is some strong evidence that the administration’s handling of the Hurricane Harvey and Irma natural disasters helps to explain the uptick in job approval for the president.
Some emphasize the bipartisan footsie Trump has played with “Chuck and Nancy,” as he referred to Schumer and Pelosi, during this period as an explanation of his improved job approval numbers. However, whatever benefit that particular move brought is likely equaled by those in the GOP base who are troubled by the substance of the decisions emerging from his negotiations with the Democrats.
The one-two punch of monster hurricanes during the late summer benefited Trump in two respects. First, the stories have completely dominated cable news coverage, moving less favorable stories to the edges of the news. Even more important is the solid performance of the emergency management branch of the administration in being prepared for and responding to the crises.
Since its creation in 1979, the administration of the Federal Emergency Management Agency has had more bad moments than good. In its first years, FEMA was led by individuals who gained positions through political contributions rather than skill in dealing with tornadoes or earthquakes. The culminating moment of this challenging start for the agency was the insufficient response to Hurricane Andrew that hit Florida in 1992; victims of that storm waited for days for relief from the federal response.
While the dreadful response to Andrew showed the political cost of ineffective FEMA, President Bill Clinton showed an understanding that FEMA working well could actually benefit an administration politically. It was a lesson learned from his time as governor of Arkansas. While most point to the one-two punch of “car tags and Cubans” as the reason for Clinton’s defeat in 1980, in his autobiography, Clinton gives as much weight to the series of tornadoes that hit the stage and the amazing heat wave in 1980 that lead to the deaths of over 100 Arkansans — and the insufficient response by the state to them — in explaining his defeat.
After he returned to the governorship, he brought Yell County Judge James Lee Witt into his administration to manage the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services and responses improved dramatically. When Clinton went to Washington several years later, he took Witt with him to head up FEMA and staffed the agency with other experienced operators. Not only did the president have a tremendous personal touch in comforting victims of disasters, but the agency learned how to prepare and respond those disasters through effective coordination with states and localities.
FEMA backtracked in George W. Bush’s administration after it was brought into the Department of Homeland Security, continually losing funding with the focus on preventing future terrorist attacks. While Michael Brown, the head of the agency, became infamous for his role during the Hurricane Katrina debacle, he had been prescient in warning earlier in 2005, “The proposed organizational structure is doomed to fail.” And, fail it did, with tremendous political cost for the Bush presidency.
President Obama returned to the Clinton-era strategy of appointing a state disaster professional to head up the agency. Craig Fugate, the former head of disaster preparedness in Florida, served as head of FEMA across Obama’s presidency. While the Obama administration’s response to the unique Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill was criticized, it generally got high marks for the continued professionalization of the operation under Fugate.
Many of those key professional staff remains at the agency and, because of the Trump administration’s slowness in filling positions, their responsibility has increased in recent months. Trump has been applauded, moreover, for the appointment of another former state emergency response director, Brock Long of Alabama, to fill Fugate’s leadership role. That decision paid off in the responses to Harvey and Irma.
As shown by his appearances, Trump clearly lacks Clinton’s ability to “feel one’s pain.” But, the things that matter most in the aftermath of a natural disaster — the response of governmental agencies led by FEMA — have worked as well as could be imagined in recent weeks. Basic competency has brought political benefit to Trump.
Mastery of natural disasters alone cannot save the Trump administration. The Russia scandal marks an existential threat to the survival of the Trump presidency, but Trump’s lack of a natural alliance with either the GOP or the Democratic caucuses in Congress makes it difficult for a long-term strategy for legislative accomplishment, and the presidency’s personal instability makes any sustained progress challenging. That said, in an era of climate change, if an administration only does one thing well, disaster management is a pretty good choice.