Days after expressing concerns that Donald Trump’s trip to flood-stricken Louisiana could turn into a “photo-op,” Gov. John Bel Edwards has said that the Republican nominee’s visit was “helpful.”
The visit, and the accompanying press coverage, were beneficial in drawing attention to the situation in Louisiana, Gov. Edwards said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, also noting his appreciation for a “good phone call” with vice presidential candidate Mike Pence, whom Edwards described as “sincere and genuine.”
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama has faced criticism from some for not yet visiting Louisiana, instead finishing out a family vacation to Martha’s Vineyard. (Governor Edwards has defended the president, saying that the White House offered to visit but the state told them to hold off until the immediate response phase was finished.) The president is scheduled to visit Louisiana next week.
The responses of politicians including Trump and President Obama to the flooding in Louisiana – and the public’s response to their responses – demonstrate how quickly a disaster can turn political, as politicians walk the thin line between engaging with affected areas and drawing attention for personal gain.
“Natural disasters hurt all Americans – rich and poor, black, white and Latino, male and female. Therefore, they are one of the few times when many Americans – red and blue – tend to turn to government for help and put aside their political biases,” writes Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, in an op-ed for CNN. “How leaders respond to these crises, particularly after Katrina, can determine how the public sees them in the years to come.”
Prior to Trump’s visit to Louisiana, Edwards, a Democrat, appeared initially skeptical of the campaign’s motives behind the visit.
“We welcome him to Louisiana, but not for a photo-op,” the governor said in a statement. “Instead we hope he’ll consider volunteering or making a sizable donation to the LA Flood Relief Fund to help the victims of the storm.”
Trump’s opponent, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, has taken an entirely different strategy altogether in responding to the flooding: she has not visited, nor announced plans to, but rather encouraged supporters on social media to donate to the rescue efforts.
“My heart breaks for Louisiana, and right now, the relief effort can’t afford any distractions,” Ms. Clinton wrote on Facebook. “The very best way this team can help is to make sure Louisianans have the resources they need.”
The question of whether to visit a disaster site in the immediate aftermath is a tricky one for politicians: go, and risk being labeled a “distraction” who only wants a photo-op; stay away, and risk being labeled uncaring, as George W. Bush did when, in 2005, he observed the damage done by Hurricane Katrina by flying over the affected areas in Air Force One.
Regardless of the motivation behind politicians’ visits to disaster sites and their level of engagement while visiting, these visits can serve an important purpose, as Edwards noted Sunday.
“It helped to shine a spotlight on Louisiana and on the dire situation that we have here. “It was helpful.”