This past week’s devastating wildfires in Maui, which killed more than a hundred people and counting, are a lot of things: the deadliest disaster to hit Hawaii since it achieved statehood; the deadliest US wildfire, period, in more than a century; and another visceral reminder of the disastrous threat of climate change.
It’s also now at least the third high-profile mismanagement of a disaster by a US president in recent years.
On Tuesday, August 8, what started as a small brushfire in the town of Lahaina quickly became explosions and an apocalyptic inferno, swallowing everything in its path and trapping people in place, triggering a state disaster declaration. Residents got no warning about the disaster — the island’s emergency sirens never went off.
With locals complaining that “there’s no government agency helping us,” it was up to the fire-stricken Hawaiians themselves to pull together and organize a relief effort. Surfer and Maui resident Kai Lenny told CBS that locals “were kinda sitting back, waiting for help to arrive, and then nothing was sorta happening,” and that “it was just like, day after day, ‘Where are they?’” Even now, survivors without power, shelter, medicine, and other basic necessities complain about a muddled and absent government response.
FEMA’s defense is that it can’t start feeding aid to states until their governments request a disaster declaration from the president. But the president himself has less of an excuse.
Typically, the president, like any political leader, is expected to exude calm and reassurance in the middle of such an emergency, usually by addressing the public, giving them updates on the situation on the ground, outlining the actions being taken, and even making an in-person visit to the site or the victims. Empathy, emotion, consolation — these are meant to be Joe Biden’s political strengths, and your average politician tends to find that there are usually only political upsides to being visible in a crisis.
Instead, the president has repeatedly shot himself in the foot by avoiding the subject, while stubbornly soldiering on with a planned ten-day-long holiday, in the middle of a presidency that he’s already spent two fifths of on vacation. After he issued a federal disaster declaration and addressed the emergency on August 10, Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters that neither she nor Biden would visit the island, to avoid “distracting” from the relief effort (on the same day that Hawaii governor Josh Green toured the destruction). As late as August 14 — nearly a week into the calamity, and as the death toll climbed into the nineties — White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre confirmed that the president had no plans to make his way over.
All the while, Biden was caught in politically horrendous photo ops, enjoying his time off while saying as little as possible about the increasingly deadly disaster, yelling “we’re looking at it” to reporters on a Sunday bike ride, and responding with “no comment” when asked about the rising death toll after relaxing on the beach. The president gave his critics the easiest of layups, and the resulting condemnation — much, though not all, coming from his political opponents — led him to announce he would visit after all, on August 21.
With FEMA set to run out of money by the end of the month, its funding has been tied to the passage of a more than $20 billion aid package to Ukraine. Regardless of your feelings on whether the US should intervene in Ukraine, the much larger foreign military aid sum is not a great look at a time when the president is accused of prioritizing an increasingly unpopular war over domestic concerns. The tethering of the two makes it even worse. It implies either that US politicians can only agree to fund emergency recovery efforts for Americans if it comes attached to funding for a foreign war, or, as Republicans are framing it, that Biden is holding “Americans hostage by tying critical domestic disaster relief to foreign military aid” and using the former as a “bargaining chip” to extract further money for a war that more and more Republicans are souring on. (Roll Call reported that tying the funds to more Ukraine aid means the bill “faces a steep climb in the House.”)
Of course, the gold standard of criminally incompetent disaster handling is George W. Bush’s Hurricane Katrina debacle, a hugely damaging turning point in Bush’s presidency that Biden’s mishandling here has parallels to. Luckily for the president, the scale of this disaster is nowhere near Katrina, which saw more than a thousand people die. Likewise, his ten-day-long vacation isn’t as optically bad as Bush’s twenty-seven-day-long one at the time of the hurricane.
But it took two days for Bush to cut his vacation short and at least attempt to convey concern and attention by flying over the disaster, and another two to set foot in Louisiana — which was considered scandalously slow at the time, but which looks positively dynamic next to Biden’s lethargic personal reaction to Maui.
A String of Disasters
Besides the tragic human cost of this flawed and lacking response, this is all a grim portent for the US public’s already wobbly trust in their government and political leadership. Biden’s listless reaction to this latest catastrophe is at least the third such fiasco that we’ve seen in the past six years.
The last one also took place under Biden earlier this year. After a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, it took a whole ten days for anyone in the administration to say anything about the disaster, and the government largely let the company responsible for the incident lead on cleanup and recovery, which included paltry and hard-to-get financial assistance for those affected.
State and federal officials quickly and dubiously assured the town’s residents that their air and water was safe, despite waterways full of dead animals and residents suffering ill effects — problems that persist while the federal government prepares to cut off aid, as the indefatigable Status Coup almost alone continues to report. To this day, Biden hasn’t set foot in East Palestine and has so far ignored the Ohio governor’s July request for a presidential disaster declaration. As with Maui, his lack of interest was contrasted to his investment in the Ukrainian war effort, with the town’s mayor calling it “the biggest slap in the face” that he visited Kyiv before East Palestine and that he was “giving millions of dollars away to people over there, not to us.”
Before that, Donald Trump — who made smart but extremely cynical political hay out of Biden’s mishandling of East Palestine by visiting the town himself — similarly failed one of the earliest tests of his leadership when he bungled the response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. His mishandling was somehow even worse than Bush’s, with Trump ignoring the crisis, taking nearly two weeks to show up to the US territory, then starting a feud with local officials and threatening to pull federal support, all while supplies and military resources badly lagged thanks to incompetence and corruption. The result was nearly three thousand dead, eclipsing the Katrina death toll and roughly equaling that of the September 11 attacks.
We could add one more president to the mix: Barack Obama. Though the forty-fourth president ably avoided his own Katrina-like fiasco with Hurricane Sandy, he had a failed and breathtakingly callous response to the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, which at one point saw him pretend to drink from a glass of the town’s lead-filled water to reassure its residents everything was fixed — not once, but two separate times. (The water in Flint, by the way, never actually got fixed and is still contaminated, but the press and politicians simply chose to forget about the whole thing.) Obama’s handling of the crisis was so egregious, it’s likely that Hillary Clinton’s refusal to criticize and propose an alternative to it is a large part of what cost her the state in that year’s Democratic primary.
Only So Many
Providing relief and recovery in the wake of a disaster is one of the basic functions of a modern state. The fact that at least two, and arguably four, successive US presidents have failed at different times to do this competently won’t help with the US public’s already grim assessment of its political institutions.
Recall that part of Trump’s appeal in 2016 was the image he presented of himself as a strong leader who could cut through the dense morass of the democratic process to solve America’s crises and restore order — and one who would close the spigot on money flowing to foreigners, whom he claimed were sucking up vast amounts of US wealth that should go to working Americans (“we give money to countries, but we don’t give money to our own country”). He capitalized on US leaders’ chronic failure to meaningfully address the swirling miseries of modern American life and exploited the view that politicians are more interested in matters abroad than domestic problems. Such an approach strengthens the hand of authoritarians at home and undermines faith in democracy.
Once upon a time, Biden vowed to shore up US democracy by proving “that our government still works and we can deliver for our people” and promised a “foreign policy for the middle class” that would put working Americans’ needs before foreign adventures. Today, both pledges seem like relics from a different administration. And as public faith in the competence of US leadership and institutions further degrades, who knows what kind of political shocks will follow.