For the second time in two weeks, President Trump visited a state rocked by a hurricane. And after drawing criticism for his lack of empathy the first time around in Texas, Trump set about avoiding that narrative in Florida. And he did it well.
This is not a piece about how this is “the New Trump” or how Trump just “pivoted” toward being more “presidential.” All of that is overwrought, and Trump visited Florida for a couple hours. But it is about how a president who dismisses the media's narratives about him seems to have consumed one of those narratives and sought to put an end to it. And in doing so, he actually looked pretty comfortable — albeit while engaging in some very Trump moments.
Appearing in Naples on Thursday, Trump, first lady Melania Trump and Vice President Pence passed out sandwiches and bananas and shook hands with those in the Hurricane Irma-stricken community. If you check out the video above, you'll see a guy who is actually pretty adept at pressing the flesh with not-necessarily-Trump-supporters and doing the small-talk thing. These are all good images for the White House.
Trump also focused almost exclusively on empathy in his comments about the hurricane:
We love these people, and we’re going to be back, and we’re going to help. And the job that everybody has done in terms of first-responders and everybody has been incredible. And, by the way, that includes people who live here, because you see the people immediately getting back to work to fix up their homes — like Bobby and like some of the others. So I just want to tell you, we are there for you 100 percent. I’ll be back here numerous times. … These are special, special people, and we love ’em.
The pool report from The Washington Post's own David Nakamura has Trump complimenting a man with an impressive physique — “You a workout guy?” he asked. “Keep it up.” — and asking another woman if she was a biker — “Bikers love us,” he assured her.
It's a big contrast to Trump's visit to Texas. Despite not having visited the hard-hit areas, Trump incorrectly claimed to have witnessed the devastation “first hand.” His allies praised his empathy in over-the-top ways that belied just how un-empathetic he had actually been. Trump was not taking that same risk in Florida.
These are such big moments for a president, but they are also opportunities — opportunities to show compassion and prove that you aren't just some automaton who only cares about your own base and policies.
And that's a significant liability for Trump. A Fox News poll two weeks ago showed only 26 percent of Americans described him as “compassionate,” while 71 percent said that word only described him “somewhat” (18 percent) or not at all (53 percent). He actually got worse marks for compassion than honesty, and this is a president who has been caught in more than 1,000 false or misleading claims in less than eight months. A Quinnipiac poll last month showed just 40 percent think he understands the problems of average Americans, compared with 57 percent who don't. For a guy who was elected on a supposed populist platform, most people don't think he truly empathizes with and feels for regular people.
But even as he was passing the empathy test, Trump wasn't exactly shedding his skin. As he did in Texas, he remarked upon how some latex gloves were too small for his hands — a callback to a media narrative about which Trump is clearly quite sensitive. “They’re too small,” Trump said of the gloves. And while passing out food, Trump encouraged one man who complained about Barack Obama golfing during a hurricane to share that claim with the cameras. This seems to refer to the popular Internet complaint that Obama was golfing during Hurricane Katrina, but George W. Bush was president at the time.
So even while empathizing and doing himself some good, Trump can't help but rehash old feuds and push dubious narratives.
To be clear, this is stagecraft. But plenty of being president is stagecraft. And Trump hasn't shown a desire to play ball with the expectations that go into that. It may be a low bar, but Trump decided to clear it Thursday.