Editor’s note: Julian Zelizer, political analyst for CNN, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 24 books, including “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this comment are his own. See more reviews on CNN.
Few things test political leaders like natural disasters. When Mother Nature wreaks havoc, presidents, governors and legislators are forced to use resources to address the dire needs of those affected. This week, Hurricane Ian tore through the Sunshine State with 150 mph winds and flooding that killed at least 15 people in what President Joe Biden said could be “the deadliest hurricane in Florida history.” Millions of residents remain without power, and losses covered by insurance alone could cost tens of billions of dollars.
They will look at two key politicians to find out how they are responding. At the federal level, President Joe Biden must demonstrate that he has the sharp leadership and governance skills necessary to get Florida out of this mess. On Thursday, Biden announced his plans to visit the sunshine state and announced that Florida would provide additional assistance to those who are underinsured to repair their homes and lose property.
At the state level, Gov. Ron DeSantis, a front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination, needs to show he can do more than orchestrate political situations like the one he orchestrated when he sent migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard earlier this month. .
DeSantis has already asked for federal help from Biden — the man he long trolled as “Brandon.” But he will have to balance the need for federal relief with his party’s staunch opposition to the Biden administration.
In other words, he must weigh the political costs of repeating a “Christie-Obama” moment, when the former New Jersey governor met with the president after Hurricane Sandy. Rupert Murdoch suggested that Christie’s lavish praise may have been responsible for Obama’s election in 2012, and many Republicans never forgave the governor.
It wasn’t always the case that the federal government was expected to step in after natural disasters. In September 1900, few believed that President William McKinley would do much when the Great Galveston Hurricane killed between 6,000 and 12,000 people. Much of the relief effort fell to local officials, philanthropists and the private sector. Train companies, for example, gave free tickets to workers who wanted to get out of the city.
But the federal government would eventually become more important. In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt advocated a greater role for Washington in response to the “Great Hurricane” that struck the East Coast. New Deal workers from the Works Progress Administration, the National Youth Administration, and the Civilian Conservation Corps were called upon to assist in recovery and reconstruction efforts.
“In these turbulent days when the nerves of men and women have been strained almost to breaking point, we have been in danger of losing sight of a very important fact,” Roosevelt said on October 14, “the whole human kindness of men and women.” He explained that the federal government was working with private agencies and he stated that “community leaders have risen to the challenge of changing conditions. They are not looking back with resentment against the Government. They have taken the actions of their Government as a release for their efforts… These are the men and women I salute. They are the shock troops of social conscience”.
In 1965, Congress passed the Southeast Hurricane Disaster Relief Act, providing immediate relief to residents of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida affected by Hurricane Betsy. It also authorized studies to help provide financial assistance to victims of similar disasters in the future. In 1979, under President Jimmy Carter, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was created. When natural disasters occur, we now expect a national response.
Politicians can be greatly influenced by how they act in these moments. Former President Donald Trump came under fire when he began throwing paper towels at Puerto Ricans in San Juan after Hurricane Maria tore through the island in October 2017. The picture was met with insensitivity and lack of sympathy for many of its critics. that characterized his tenure. Boasting about the handling of this and other hurricanes, including Harvey, embodied moments of “duty accomplished” that ignored ongoing challenges. He also offered a preview of how he would respond to the epic public health crisis of Covid-19.
But few moments came close to President George W. Bush’s slow and confused response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which dealt a devastating blow to his image as Commander-in-Chief. The kind of gravitas that some had conveyed after 9/11 collapsed completely. Images of Bush looking out over New Orleans from Air Force One made the president, who was on an extended vacation at Crawford Ranch when the storm hit, appear “distant and uncaring,” as he later admitted.
His comment to FEMA Director Michael Brown – “Brownie, you’re doing a terrible job” – came to symbolize his lack of interest in domestic government and his lack of concern for Americans at the bottom of the economic ladder who were suffering. The fact that FEMA was so underfunded and understaffed became powerful evidence for Democrats that the continued attacks on the federal government had dangerous consequences.
Other presidents have also struggled. Bush’s father, President George HW Bush, in Florida in 1992 because of the delayed response to Andrew, a Category 5 hurricane with winds of 165 mph, before his re-election bid against Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton.
Sure, other leaders have shown their chops by responding aggressively and effectively in times of crisis. During his tenure, President Clinton would have been much more effective when tragedy struck, as well as in other parts of the world. Clinton sent nearly a billion dollars in emergency aid to Central America after Hurricane Mitch swept through the region in 1998.
Decades earlier, President Johnson had won accolades when he visited Louisiana after Hurricane Betsy and made sure to provide much-needed relief. Obama also received strong support for the way he responded to Hurricane Sandy: 78% of Americans approved of how he handled the situation.
After Hurricane Ian, Biden and DeSantis will be in the spotlight as voters look to see how the two leaders can provide practical support and leadership.
In many ways, responses to natural disasters provide a powerful x-ray of the character and skills of political leaders. In the coming weeks, the two potential rivals for 2024 will show us what they are capable of.