President Obama has accomplished something previously unimaginable: He helped Donald Trump look more presidential than the president of the United States.
On Friday, while residents of Baton Rouge were recovering from a historic flood that damaged some 40,000 homes, Obama was on Martha’s Vineyard watching fireworks, following 10 rounds of golf in 16 days. Donald Trump, by contrast, was on the ground in the flood zone, unloading relief materials, touring the devastation and focusing much-needed attention on a disaster that has been largely ignored by the media.
Why wasn’t Obama there? According to a White House statement, “The President is mindful of the impact that his travel has on first responders and wants to ensure that his presence does not interfere with ongoing recovery efforts.”
Funny, that’s precisely why President George W. Bush didn’t come to New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina. And Democrats — including Barack Obama — hammered Bush for it. Unlike Obama, Bush actually canceled his vacation and got on a plane to return to Washington. But he decided not to land in Louisiana so as not to draw resources away from the ongoing rescue efforts and flew Air Force One low over the flood zone so that he could see the devastation firsthand.
Democrats howled. Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Bush was “oblivious, in denial, dangerous.” Obama later called Bush “a president who only saw the people [of Louisiana] from the window of an airplane, instead of down here on the ground trying to provide comfort.”
Well, I have news for Obama. You can’t see the people of Louisiana at all from a golf course on Martha’s Vineyard.
This is the worst natural disaster to hit the United States since Hurricane Sandy, yet neither Obama nor his presumed successor, Hillary Clinton (who was also on Martha’s Vineyard), bothered to step in front of a microphone to say a word about it. Taking advantage of the political vacuum Obama and Clinton left, Trump jumped in and did what presidents are supposed to do — he used his bully pulpit to shine a spotlight on the tragedy.
Louisiana residents had been complaining about the dearth of news coverage. Trump changed that in a day. And he got bipartisan praise for doing so. Former Democratic senator Mary Landrieu, who is supporting Hillary Clinton, said “I want to thank Mr. Trump for coming” because “he brought attention to our state, and we need that now.” She urged Clinton and Obama to follow Trump’s lead and do the same. Even Democratic governor John Bel Edwards conceded Sunday that Trump’s visit “helped to shine a spotlight on Louisiana and on the dire situation that we have here,” adding Trump and his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, were “sincere and genuine . . . about their desire to be helpful.”
Flood victims also expressed their gratitude to Trump, and scorn for the president. One woman whose home flooded told the Los Angeles Times that Trump’s visit was “awesome” and said “our own dear president is too busy at Martha’s Vineyard to visit us.” Another observer said of Trump, “He really cares, and this is his way of showing it. It’s something a president should do.”
It was only after Trump was on the ground in Louisiana that Obama finally announced he would visit himself.
One of the most important jobs a president has is to be “consoler in chief” in times of tragedy. Many Americans, who previously could not imagine Trump as president, finally saw him in that role Friday. They watched him touring the devastation, hugging victims and promising to rally the country to help them rebuild. That’s what the president should have been doing, but instead Americans saw Trump doing it.
Through his cool indifference, Obama gave Trump an opening — and Trump seized it.
And it wasn’t just Louisiana. When three days of riots broke out in Milwaukee this month, Obama played two rounds of golf with former NBA star Alonzo Mourning, spoke at a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton and then spent the day at a private beach. Meanwhile, Trump rushed to Milwaukee, where he pointed out that the “main victims of these riots are law-abiding African American citizens living in these neighborhoods” and said “I am asking for the vote of every African American citizen struggling in our country today who wants a different future.”
Democrats have begun to take the Trump implosion for granted. They figured they could pretty much do anything and win. But this past week, Trump capitalized on the openings that Obama and Clinton gave him. In Louisiana, he came across as more compassionate than the president or the Democratic nominee. One good week does not a good campaign make, but it’s a start.