A Political Rally Sounds Like a Fine Place for the President to Be During a Hurricane


President Donald Trump arrives to a rally at the Erie Insurance Arena in Erie, Pa., Oct. 10, 2018. (Al Drago/The New York Times)

“Trump bets there’s no downside to campaigning as hurricane rages,” reads a headline from CNN.

“President Donald Trump tempted fate and nature by declining to cancel an optically risky campaign rally and fundraiser even as the most powerful hurricane in a quarter century thrashed across the Florida Panhandle,” the articles lede proclaims.

That’s right. There is political risk in any given President seeming indifferent or incompetent in the face of a natural disaster. Think of the way then-candidate Barack Obama capitalized on the Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2008 literally years after that storm made landfall.

But are the political risks associated with campaigning in one part of the country while a natural disaster is happening in another really about sound leadership? Or is it merely about appearances?

When it comes to natural disasters, the proper role for the President of the United States is in policy making. We can hold the president responsible for budgeting decisions. Staffing and appointment decisions. Legislative decisions. But all of that takes place before something like a hurricane happens.

Once the storm has begun, the time for top-down policy making is over and the time for leadership from local politicians and first responders is at hand.

While that’s happening, do we really want our image-sensitive presidents serving as a distraction? Posturing themselves around the disaster for the political press corps?

The best place for President Trump while Hurricane Michael was touch down in Florida was at that campaign rally in Pennsylvania. There was nothing for the President to do anyway, and even if some issue came up which required a decision by the chief executive of the nation, it’s not like our presidents lack the means to work remotely.

In the days and weeks after the storm there will be policy decisions to be made by Trump, but not when the storm was touching down.

The problem isn’t that Trump was in Pennsylvania. The problem is that we, the voting public, often have stupid expectations of what our national leaders ought to be doing during natural disasters.