Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, 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 views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
There are very few things that test political leaders like natural disasters. When mother nature wreaks havoc, presidents, governors, and legislators are forced to deploy resources to address the dire needs of those affected. This week, Hurricane Ian tore through the sunshine state with 150-mph winds and catastrophic floods that left at least 15 people dead in what President Joe Biden said could be the “deadliest hurricane in Florida’s history.” Millions of residents are still without power, and the losses covered by insurance alone could cost tens of billions of dollars.
Two key politicians will be scrutinized for how they respond. At the federal level, President Joe Biden needs to demonstrate he has the leadership and rigorous governing skills that are necessary to help Florida out of this mess. On Thursday, Biden stated his intention to visit the sunshine state and announced that those in Florida without enough insurance would be provided additional assistance for home repairs and loss of property.
At the state level, Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is billed as a potential Republican presidential nominee for 2024, needs to show that he can achieve more than political stunts like the one he orchestrated earlier this month when he sent migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard.
DeSantis has already requested federal assistance from Biden – a man he has long trolled as “Brandon.” But he will have to balance the need for federal relief with his own party’s steadfast opposition toward the Biden administration.
In other words, he must weigh the political costs of replicating a “Christie-Obama” moment, when the former New Jersey governor met with the president after Hurricane Sandy. Rupert Murdoch suggested Christie’s effusive praise might be responsible for Obama’s reelection 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 thought President William McKinley would do much when the Great Galveston hurricane killed somewhere between 6,000 to 12,000 people. Much of the relief effort was left to local officials, philanthropists and the private sector. Railway companies, for example, provided 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 championed a larger role for Washington in response to the “Great Hurricane” that hit the east coast . Workers in the Works Progress Administration, the National Youth Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps – New Deal programs meant to put people to work – were called on to assist both the recovery and rebuilding efforts.
“In troubled days when the nerves of men and women have been strained almost to the breaking point we have been in danger of losing sight of one very important fact,” Roosevelt said on October 14, “the all-pervading human kindness of men and women.” He explained that the federal government was working with private agencies and noted that “community leaders have met the challenge of changing conditions. They are not looking backward with resentment against the Government. They have welcomed the acts of their Government as a liberation of their efforts… It is these men and women whom I salute. They are the shock troops of the social conscience.”
In 1965, Congress passed the Southeast Hurricane Disaster Relief Act, which provided immediate relief to residents in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida who were affected by Hurricane Betsy. It also authorized studies to help provide financial assistance to victims of similar disasters going forward. In 1979, under President Jimmy Carter, the Federal Emergency Management Agency came into being. When natural disasters strike, we now expect a national response.
Politicians can be deeply affected by how they perform in these moments. Former President Donald Trump came under intense fire when he started throwing rolls of paper towels at Puerto Ricans in San Juan after the island had been torn apart by Hurricane Maria in October 2017. The image captured for many of his critics the insensitivity and lack of sympathy that characterized his tenure. His boasting about the way he handled this and other hurricanes, including Hurricane Harvey, embodied “mission accomplished” moments that ignored the ongoing challenges. It also offered a preview for 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 fumbling response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which dealt a massive blow to his image as Commander-in-Chief. The sort of gravitas that some felt he had conveyed after September 11 totally collapsed. Images of Bush looking down on New Orleans from Air Force One made the president, who had been on a long vacation at his Crawford ranch when the storm hit, appear “detached and uncaring,” as he later admitted.
His quip to FEMA Director Michael Brown – “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” – also came to symbolize his disinterest in domestic governance and 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 as to why incessant attacks on the federal government had dangerous consequences.
Other presidents have struggled as well. Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush, came under fire in 1992 for his laggard response to Andrew in Florida, a Category 5 hurricane with winds that reached 165 mph, shortly before his reelection contest against Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton.
To be sure, other leaders have shown their chops by responding aggressively and effectively in moments of crisis. During his term, President Clinton would prove much more effective when tragedy struck, even in other parts of the world. Clinton sent almost a billion dollars in emergency aid to Central America after Hurricane Mitch swept through the region in 1998.
Many decades earlier, President Johnson earned accolades when he visited Louisiana after Hurricane Betsy and made sure to provide much-needed relief. Obama also received considerable support for the way he responded to Hurricane Sandy – 78% of Americans approved of how he handled the situation.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, both Biden and DeSantis will be under the spotlight as voters will be looking at how the two leaders can provide both practical support and leadership.
In many ways, the responses to natural disasters provide a powerful x-ray into the character and skills of political leaders. In the coming weeks, two potential rivals for 2024 will be showing us what they are capable of.