“I don’t doubt his passion to help the American people,” Mark Locklear, a resident of Robeson County, N.C., said in response to my question about how he thinks President Trump is responding to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey. Locklear, who twice voted for Barack Obama before backing Trump in 2016, added that it appears Trump is doing all he can to help those in need.
In their coverage of Trump’s handling of the crisis, much of the Washington media seem to have missed the “passion to help” that Locklear perceives. Instead, they’ve been preoccupied with whether Trump got close enough to the action during his Tuesday trip to Corpus Christi, Texas, and, absurdly, with first lady Melania Trump’s shoe selection as she traveled to the flood-ravaged region.
To get a sense of how people in the places most responsible for putting Trump in the White House are reacting to Trump’s handling of the first major natural disaster of his presidency, I corresponded with more than a dozen people in five counties that are part of The Race To 2020 series. All five are counties that voted for Obama twice before swinging to Trump.
With some exceptions, my respondents feel the Trump administration is doing a fine job handling the crisis. But many also said the real work, and thus the real test for Trump, is still ahead. Rachel Gooder of Howard County, Iowa, said that “it is what he does after the storm that will make or break him.”
Rachel’s husband, Mike, said Trump’s “rapid, preemptive, proactive and assertive response…has been on point and very impressive.” Mike also believes that “the ultimate test will be the actions of the administration in the days ahead leading into years in the recovery effort.”
On Monday, Trump pledged to push through a major recovery package for the region. On Tuesday, he visited Corpus Christi on the Texas Gulf Coast. And on Thursday, the president announced that he would donate $1 million of his own money to help with the relief effort.
Not everyone is giving Trump positive reviews. Chris Dannou, a Democratic former state senator for Trempealeau County, Wis., said he thinks it’s too early to grade the administration on its response. But he said he “found the remarks that Trump made referencing the crowd size at the Corpus Christi event pathetic.”
As Darryl Howard of Macomb County, Mich., sees it, Trump “has no idea what’s happening.” FEMA has done well, Howard said, by “taking the lead on this.”
Some respondents had advice for Trump. “Focus on showing empathy and showing concern instead of bragging about the governor of Texas,” said James Fouts, the mayor of Warren, the largest city in Macomb County, the blue collar Detroit suburb and birthplace of Reagan Democrats. Trump “got elected by showing concern for little people and he should show concern for them now,” Fouts added.
Others felt Trump didn’t need to visit Texas at all. Alan Taylor, a Baptist pastor in Robeson County, feels Trump was forced to visit “because of what the media did to George W. Bush after Katrina. I think he would have rather waited until he wasn’t that much of a distraction, but he had no option.”
Only one respondent mentioned Melania Trump’s shoes, and that was to criticize the media’s obsession with them. “To see the press focus on Trump’s spouse’s shoes is the most petty thing [and] has been disappointing,” Bo Biggs of Robeson County said.
Every president must attend to natural disasters—hurricanes, flash floods, earthquakes and tornadoes. And how a president responds to them can make or break his presidency. George W. Bush’s aloof response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 helped torpedo his presidency’s second term.
Harvey has killed at least 31 people and destroyed thousands of structures in Texas and parts of Louisiana. Trump is reportedly very engaged in the details of the disaster relief effort.
Trump will return to the region over Labor Day weekend. While he has used words such as “horror” to describe the storm’s devastating effects, he has also appeared upbeat and positive, praising the relief efforts coordinated by state and federal officials.
Trump seems to appreciate the importance of being attentive to people in their time of need. During the presidential campaign a year ago, Hurricane Matthew ripped up parts of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Trump toured areas of Baton Rouge, La., that had been torn apart by the consequent floods. He sent thousands of bottles of water there to aid in the recovery.
After the flash floods devastated parts of southeast North Carolina, Team Trump dispatched Donald’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump to deliver $30,000 worth of emergency supplies to the region, including to Robeson County. Some residents there told me they think the Trump campaign’s presence on the ground in their time of need persuaded many people to vote for Trump.
Some residents there are still thinking about Hurricane Matthew as they watch events unfold in Texas. “People in the affected areas are glad to see the president, but he was far enough away [during his Corpus Christi visit] to not disrupt recovery effort,” said Jarrod Lowery, of Pembroke, N.C. “After living through Hurricane Matthew, I believe the president, so far, is spot on.”
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