For only the second time since 1952, the presidential contest features a race with neither an incumbent president nor a vice president on the ticket. The last time was 2008, with Republican Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin losing to Sens. Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
Without some part of the previous administration on the ballot, running against the sins of a current administration is a little more difficult for the opposition party. But in 2008, despite the distance the McCain campaign had put between it and the Bush administration, Obama ran successfully against the unpopular President George W. Bush.
At the time, Bush was already struggling with an unpopular war and deteriorating economic conditions, but the beginning of his decline could be traced back to his handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
On numerous occasions, then-Sen. Barack Obama, with an eye on the White House, would cite the Bush administration’s bungling of Katrina.
“When the people of New Orleans and Gulf Coast extended their hand for help, help was not there,” Obama said in a speech in New Orleans in February 2008. “When people looked up from the rooftops, for too long they saw an empty sky. When the winds blew and the flood waters came, we learned for all of our wealth and our power, something wasn’t right with America.
“We can talk about what happened for a few days in 2005, and we should,” Obama continued. “We can talk about levies that couldn’t hold, about a FEMA that seem not just incompetent but paralyzed and powerless, about a president who only saw the people from a window on an airplane instead of down here on the ground, trying to provide comfort and aid.”
In the post-Katrina brave new world of made-for-television politics, using acts of God for political gain is now just part of the playbook.
Four years later, many looked at Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey embracing Obama in the heat of his re-election bid against Mitt Romney on the scene of Hurricane Sandy as a pivotal moment in the election cycle. The Obama campaign and his allies in the media championed that bipartisan display as proof Obama was a president who would get things done despite politics.
More recently, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump made an appearance on the ground after last month’s flooding in Louisiana to show he could be presidential in the wake of a crisis. Some credit Trump for shaming Obama, who was vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard, into coming to Louisiana for his own assessment of the situation.
Do any of these appearances make things better? Will having Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine, Donald Trump or Mike Pence show up really improve the situation? Does the power come back on faster? Will that make FEMA operate more efficiently? Will it get insurance adjusters to more promptly get the ball rolling on rebuilding?
Proponents of these gestures say it shows they care. As Obama proclaimed in his attack on Bush in 2008, no one was there to provide “comfort.”
It goes without saying that the federal government plays a role in disaster relief and it is certainly fair game to say the buck stops with the commander in chief if the response goes poorly. To suggest, however, that the role of the president or any other elected leader is to provide emotional support, and that the failure to provide such care is a huge disqualifier, demonstrates a misplacement of priorities.
If you’re sitting in a disaster area after a hurricane with roof damage and no water or power, do you want a take-no-prisoners effective leader calling the shots and coordinating relief, or would you prefer a warm cup of cocoa from the “consoler in chief” who will tell you everything is going to be OK?
Oddly, we seem to be at a place in our politics where the latter is the preferred option for those watching from afar. The desire for an “empathizer in chief” has overtaken the electorate.
Instead of saying “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” imagine if Franklin Roosevelt in his inauguration speech in 1933 had told the greatest generation — which would survive the Great Depression and go on to fight World War II — that they needed a hug and a boost in self-esteem. Where would the country be today?
Relying solely on government without a backup disaster preparedness plan is one thing. But it has since been taken a step further to require politicians to show they care if they want to be elected.
There’s nothing wrong with offering thoughts and prayers for those suffering from a natural disaster, but the political exploitation of the suffering paired with calls for a show of moral support from the commander in chief suggest a real softening of society.
The truth of the matter is that even when the politician, regardless of political stripe, shows up, they’ll have their photo-op and get the positive news coverage showing they care and then it’s on to the next chapter of the campaign.
It’s been two weeks since President Obama visited the flood-ravaged region of Louisiana and two-and-a-half weeks since Trump visited. Still, as of late last week, 3,000 people are displaced in shelters because of that flooding.