Damned If He Does, Damned If He Doesn't

[ Posted Tuesday, August 29th, 2017 – 16:55 UTC ]

President Donald Trump flew down to Texas today. In doing so, he is following a familiar script: "President tours disaster area, personally gives comfort to the afflicted, promises federal aid." Presidents have done such things for a long time, but the tactical problems with arranging such a trip have created a Catch-22 type of situation. Complaints about the details of Trump's visit have already begun, but the interesting thing is that no matter what he had done there would still be something to complain about. Now, I'm generally not one to feel sorry for Donald Trump (see: everything I've written over the past two years), but in this particular case it really seems that Trump -- or any president in a similar situation, really -- is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't.

Presidential visits to disaster zones are a way to show the people affected that the president personally cares about the outcome, and also a way to show other unaffected Americans that their president has some empathy with the suffering. Some presidents have been better at this sort of thing than others. But while the drop-in visit garners a lot of press attention, presidents are ultimately judged on the long-term outcome instead of the short-term photo-op. If the outcome is seen as good, then the presidential visit will likely reflect that feeling. If the outcome is bad, then no matter what the president does there will be criticism.

Consider the most infamous case of getting it wrong. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, President George W. Bush cut one of his many vacations short and flew back to work. Rather than visit New Orleans, he directed Air Force One to instead just overfly the devastation, and he was photographed looking out the plane's window at the wreckage. If the Katrina response had been completely different -- if the governmental reaction hadn't broken down so spectacularly, in other words -- then Bush might have wound up getting praise for avoiding the disaster site rather than the scorn that was heaped upon him for not visiting (and for the photo, which was seen as uncaring, detached, and above-it-all).

A planned presidential visit to anywhere (disaster area or not) involves a whole lot of work for a whole lot of people. The Secret Service does everything they can to "secure the site," which can mean imposing temporary zones where planes cannot fly, traffic cannot travel, and people are not allowed. In a flooding disaster, there are already severe restrictions on where vehicles and people can safely travel, of course, but rescues by air (and by boat) are going on constantly. This means if the president travels too close to the epicenter, he will be the direct cause of rescuers not being able to work for a period of time. That risks lives.

All of these were the stated reasons why Bush didn't land in New Orleans, but it didn't do him any good in the public's perception of him. But Bush was in his own Catch-22 situation, because the federal response was such an epic fiasco of monumental proportions that nothing he did would really have changed public opinion. After he uttered the "heckuva job" line to his woefully unprepared FEMA director, the die was cast for Bush, really.

The other end of this scale would have to be Bill Clinton. Clinton was so good at comforting the afflicted that it began to be a punchline for comedians. After all, how many "I feel your pain" jokes were told in the 1990s? Even just counting the ones on Saturday Night Live would be a daunting task.

So when a hurricane happens, with widespread flooding, what should be the proper presidential reaction? The president could choose not to go -- and he'd be excoriated for not caring. The president could choose to go, but not immediately -- and he'd be criticized for waiting too long. The president could choose to go, but stay away from the hardest-hit areas, so he wouldn't have an impact on the rescue efforts -- and he'd be criticized for not personally meeting with the evacuees. The president could travel to the epicenter -- and he'd be denounced for halting the rescues for a self-serving photo op. The ideal method might just be having the president communicate with the affected people remotely (via video screen), which would seem to solve two problems at once by personally connecting with the victims without impacting the affected area with the security necessary for a presidential visit -- but any president who tried such a thing would doubtless be criticized for the impersonal nature of empathizing through a video screen.

In other words, it's a very fine tightrope for any president to walk, these days. No matter what you decide to do, you have opened yourself up to criticism for not handling things differently. Catch-22. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

So while I watch Trump's visit, I'll be keeping in mind the factors that must be weighed in the choices he made for his trip (and for a possible upcoming return visit this weekend). Of course, in the long term, Trump will probably be judged by the outcome more than any particular visit. The storm is still raging, and the rain is still pounding down. This natural disaster isn't over yet, in other words. The recovery hasn't even begun. There are a lot of things that can go either right or wrong in the next few days, the next few months, and the next few years. That will be the ultimate test, in the end. If things go relatively well, then Trump gaffes (such as bragging about his crowd size once again today) will likely be forgotten, or at least forgiven. If things don't turn out so good, however, then not even the perfect presidential empathy visit is going to change the public's perception in the long run.

One test of how this perception will be formed will come next month, when Congress will have to act on disaster relief for the Gulf Coast. There is a lot of bad feeling left over from Hurricane Sandy, when Republicans (many of them from Texas) consistently voted against Sandy relief bills. Republicans also wanted to force Democrats to cut other federal spending in order to pay for Sandy relief. So the possibility for pointing out some rank hypocrisy will certainly exist. But the bigger hurdle will be all the other unfinished business Congress already has on its plate for September -- some of which might get tangled up in the rush to pass Harvey disaster relief. How Trump handles this situation may become much more important to how the public sees the Harvey recovery effort than how his visit today is seen.

Maybe it's just the natural feelings of sympathy for fellow citizens in peril, but I find I cannot bring myself to microanalyze Trump's visit to Texas today. In the grand scheme of things, it's really not all that important, after all. What if Bush had landed his plane and toured New Orleans? Would anything have really changed? Would he been seen as more competent as a result? I seriously doubt it. The response was so incredibly bad that it likely wouldn't have made one iota of difference to the people trapped in the Superdome -- or to those watching at home. Which is why I'm essentially giving Trump a pass today, because it is just too soon to measure how his response to Hurricane Harvey will be seen in the future. It could be seen by history as bad, it could be seen as good, but that jury is still out, really. Presidential visits to disaster areas are now so fraught with possible missteps that no matter what course a president chooses there will be some criticism for not handling the visit differently. For me, though, it is too soon to measure the impact that Donald Trump and his administration will have on the Harvey aftermath. Perhaps in a week or two it'll be possible to see how the response has been going, but for now I'm going to avoid making snap judgments.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


18 Comments on “Damned If He Does, Damned If He Doesn't”

  1. [1] 
    Paula wrote:

    I think any POTUS could go on TV, express concern, pledge help, and explain how his presence would divert resources from rescue efforts. I think the public would understand that -- obviously criticism will be forthcoming by some no matter what. But probably not "mainstream media".

    I think DT is in a damned if he does/doesn't box far more because he's generated so much bad blood in so many quarters, and has been seen to be "insincere" so often, that almost anything he does is viewed with suspicion and skepticism. It doesn't help that he's such a media hound and so bad at expressing sympathy/empathy, because he ends up looking like he's there for the photo-ops and nothing else. (Which is probably the case.)

  2. [2] 
    TheStig wrote:

    A 2minute man, with an incomplete and feuding staff, who is distracted by legal problems and unable to reign in a disaffected Congress meets up with a mega natural disaster that is going to take years and many, many billions of $$$ to clean up. Trump's prospects don't look too good.

  3. [3] 
    Kick wrote:

    27, 12 {delayed responses, moved forward}

    I seem to be missing a tall, invisible rabbit.

    Is he heading in your direction by any chance?

    Actually, I was headed in his direction. I ventured South to help in the efforts to get ready for the storm, and then I swung by Houston on the way home Friday and convinced some friends to self-evacuate... gave them the old "better safe than sorry" speech and managed to cajole them out of there by promising them multiple rounds of margaritas and steak. They finally relented and came home with me, which was a good thing too because I was simply not taking "no" for an answer.

    Made steaks and a few rounds of margaritas on Saturday and watched the mess on television for awhile. Then we decided we just couldn't take it sitting around and watching so we headed back down to volunteer to help get others out.

    I am gobsmacked at the mess down there; it is surreal. We rescued lots of dogs, a few cats, humans... only got bit by one of them (dog). There are so many volunteers down there now that we decided to head home... exhausted. Oh, those poor people; some of them have lost everything. Can't tell you how many times I've choked back tears listening to their stories. The one thing so many of them have in common is having nowhere to go. Their cars are flooded; their homes are gone. Okay... enough about that.

    Me and my guests are back home now and making margaritas. They think their home is still dry (on the inside) but not at all certain; they did find out there are homes flooded only a half mile away from theirs. I heard that at home we got rain on and off for about a day and a half from the outer bands, but we're dry and beautiful weather now. Pardon my language, but that rabbit bastard needs to die, die, die already... over 50 inches of rain in places and still falling.

    I'm seriously sick of water, but curiously the thing I want to do is take my margarita and pool float and drift aimlessly around on my back whilst staring upward. Anyone who touches me loses a hand; I've warned them. How long until that total eclipse? I've got front row seats.

    Bleyd and Kick

    Hope you are both well.

    Thanks, Punk. I'm fine, but I'm exhausted and do need a drink... oh, looky there at the end of my arm, I've got one. :)

  4. [4] 
    Kick wrote:


    A 2minute man, with an incomplete and feuding staff, who is distracted by legal problems and unable to reign in a disaffected Congress meets up with a mega natural disaster that is going to take years and many, many billions of $$$ to clean up. Trump's prospects don't look too good.


    I have an idea for Benedict Donald: Screw the wall... build Texas.

  5. [5] 
    Bleyd wrote:

    If Trump does one thing right in his presidency, let it be this. Even if I wasn't in the immediate vicinity, I'd wish for success with this kind of disaster relief.

  6. [6] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    Kick [3] Very interesting post. Very well written, too. Thanks.

    Kick [4] Pertinent point. Right now, the only kinds of walls Texas needs are flood walls. I'm sure that point will be made in the upcoming debate!

    Bleyd [5] Maybe if it's presented to him as a series of construction projects, it might hold his attention.

  7. [7] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Overall, the optics of the visit were terrible. For a man who professes to like draining swamps, he missed a YUGE opportunity to actually visit one.

    Don and Melania were dressed like they were going to a Hampton's weekend. This was a clear signal that no distressed commoners would be encouraged or even encountered. This was a Trump Organization marketing trip. Ball Cap, online, 40 bucks. At least he didn't pimp $50 Trump bottled water.

    Trump is a hollow, distant man. You either like that or you don't.

    If a plaque is ever put on a wall to commemorate this processional it should read:


  8. [8] 
    TheStig wrote:

    "Some presidents have been better at this sort of thing than others."

    FDR for one.

    In the present situation, he would have personally driven a boat down a flooded street, shaken local hands at a shelter, and turned on couple of pumps... all the while concealing the fact he couldn't really walk.

  9. [9] 
    Paula wrote:

    Kick and Bleyd: glad you're OK!

    Seeing photos and video today showing a highway covered in water that's actually got waves and white caps. Surreal.

    As is always the case, there are heroes popping up all over, rescuing people and pets, as Kick described. Inspiring.

  10. [10] 
    LeaningBlue wrote:

    I used the term "cutoff low" a couple weeks ago, in the context of the hot-Arctic- caused jet stream disruption. Harvey was a cutoff low; it didn't track until it dropped 50 inches of rain.

    Now there's another one on the way. The jet pattern, unless it shifts in the next 5 days, will put Irma over the Gulf side of Florida. And the steering high evident in this view, currently persisting in place, is why that's a possibility.,30.14,1308/loc=-66.458,29.594

    That earlier discussion of climate change effects wasn't theoretical, data based, nor futuristic. The ice is gone, the pole-equator temperature gradient is diminished, and as should be increasingly clear, this is now an ongoing economic and political concern. Starting last Friday.

  11. [11] 
    LeaningBlue wrote:

    What the president does or doesn't have the personal ability or personality to do, it's not off topic to reflect that less than 20% of the flooded Harris County properties have flood insurance. That will likely lead to Andrew-style dead zones. More fraught in terms of Federal responsibilities and governance, for some who do, FEMA will be paying out to them for the third time in 3 years (three "500-year" flood events in a row; what a coincidence).
    Add to that the shutdown of the pipelines carrying half the east coast's gasoline, because the refineries are shut in. Add in the plants which make the plastic resins for your Iphone and your Tupperware. Add in the chemicals plants (one currently exploding), ag fertilizer plants (one of which exploded three years ago) ... hell, add in a couple of months of partial off-line state of the largest concentration of petrochemical production in the world. Then try to estimate the costs from almost a thousand square miles which are now or have been under water.

    Economic equilibria from Corpus to Staten Island have been disrupted. It's never certain, in non-linear systems, if a post-shock equilibrium will be the same as the ex-ante state.

    Since the total net full cost of this event is going to be more than a half trillion dollars, some of those equilibrium states are never going to come back.

    In this case, I really doubt that some of them can even recover. The complacency among the public and the markets is fascinating to watch, but hardly unique, and independent of scale; think, e.g., Titanic.

  12. [12] 
    LeaningBlue wrote:

    The last sentence in the comment above, which begins "The complacency ..." should have been deleted.

    That's an avenue I decided I didn't really want to go down just now.

  13. [13] 
    chaszzzbrown wrote:

    In re: [10]

    Awesome link.

  14. [14] 
    Kick wrote:
  15. [15] 
    Kick wrote:


    If Trump does one thing right in his presidency, let it be this. Even if I wasn't in the immediate vicinity, I'd wish for success with this kind of disaster relief.

    Yes, please.

    Glad you're okay, but what a mess all around you. Houston area needs better drainage system; these floods aren't stopping any time soon. Good luck down there.

  16. [16] 
    Kick wrote:


    Thanks. I'm playing catch up today. Dropped my friends back in Houston this weekend and headed home today. Dang, what a mess, but they were lucky. They were told that the houses two blocks over were underwater by up to about 4 feet, but their home is at the top of the "hill," more like just an incline IMO. On their block, the lawns were soaked, but no damage to the interiors at all.

    Seems like everyone down there has a story. If I lived down there, my story would be: "I am moving as fast as I can get my stuff in order." :)

    Right now, the only kinds of walls Texas needs are flood walls. I'm sure that point will be made in the upcoming debate!

    Yep. Apparently there were no building regulations, and Trump recently rolled back a lot of regulations Obama had enacted that are now going to have to be rolled back in; spending billions to rebuild otherwise makes no sense.

  17. [17] 
    Kick wrote:



    I actually think Trump played it correctly on that one to just stay out of the way. Just like every other president, he would take criticism regardless... damned if he did or didn't, like CW said.

  18. [18] 
    Kick wrote:


    Awesome link.

    I totally bookmarked that one.

    Good to "see you" Charles Brown, Esq. :)

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