The Memo: Biden faces test in tornadoes’ aftermath
President Biden faces both a test and an opportunity in the aftermath of the tornadoes that wreaked havoc on Kentucky and several other states over the weekend.
The federal response to the disaster will be closely scrutinized for any shortcomings, and Biden will suffer political damage if that proves to be the case.
On the other hand, a strong response from the Biden administration to the tragedy, which has killed dozens, has the potential to breach the nation’s gaping political divides. And the president’s capacity for empathy, which even some of his ideological opponents acknowledge, should help him meet the moment.
Biden will visit Kentucky on Wednesday, where his ability to show compassion and care for those afflicted is likely to be on full display.
“So many people are facing immense, immense loss,” the president said at the White House on Monday.
The administration knows the stakes, substantively for the people of the affected areas and politically for the president.
Kentucky, where a tornado appears to have stayed on the ground for more than 200 miles, was the hardest-hit state. The death toll there is still being tallied, but The Associated Press reported that at least 74 people had been confirmed dead there as of Monday afternoon.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Deanne Criswell were on the ground in Kentucky on Sunday.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki noted during her Monday media briefing that the president had “immediately approved” Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s (D) request for emergency assistance.
Psaki also noted that the president had directed FEMA to “lean forward with a proactive response.”
FEMA is still identified in the public mind with its ineffective response to Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans with catastrophic effect in 2005.
George W. Bush’s presidency was badly damaged during that disaster for his backing of the FEMA head at the time, Michael Brown — and for what critics saw as a basic lack of compassion or urgency.
It is too early to judge the Biden administration’s logistical response to the current crisis. But those in the affected areas express some encouragement with what they are seeing.
“The president has done everything that we have needed him to do so far,” Tim Morris, the executive director of the Greater Louisville Central Labor Council, told this column. Morris has roots in western Kentucky, where he said his family home was just five miles from the tornado’s path.
“I am thankful that he wants to come down and to be part of the solution, not be a part of the problem,” Morris said of Biden.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been a frequent critic but praised Biden on Monday for his response to the deadly tornadoes.
“Thank you @POTUS for your rapid approval of Kentucky’s Major Disaster Declaration,” McConnell said in a tweet.
“I appreciate the Administration’s quick work to speed resources to help deal with this crisis,” he added.
Speaking in Wilmington, Del., on Saturday, Biden had promised to visit the affected areas but had said he did not want to do so if he would get “in the way.” Morris praised him for those words, saying they showed him not to be “a politician who just wants to come down and get a photo opportunity.”
Democrats more broadly take heart from the president’s response so far, because they know the downside of any missteps can be so huge.
“Presidents have been sunk by natural disasters,” said Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf, citing the example of Bush and Katrina.
“When you have natural disasters, it is important for the chief executive of the nation to be more than the chief executive — he has to be the chief consoler, the chief empathizer,” Sheinkopf added, saying that when things go wrong, “the political damage can be huge even among people who don’t live in the state or region. People everywhere want to see what the response is, whether their trust is warranted.”
Another Democratic strategist, Bill Carrick, noted that the Biden administration’s early response appeared appropriately focused but cautioned that the practical challenges are “very tough stuff.”
Even Biden’s vaunted empathy, rooted in the traumatic experience of his own life, doesn’t necessarily insulate him from all criticism.
Biden lost his first wife and their infant daughter in a car crash in 1972, just after he was first elected to the Senate. His son Beau Biden died from brain cancer in 2015.
But in August, some military families who had been bereaved in the final days of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan were critical of the president in the immediate aftermath of meeting him. Some suggested he seemed more focused on talking about his own loss than on theirs.
The disaster in Kentucky is not immune from political squabbling, either.
Prominent Democrats, including Reps. Ilhan Omar (Minn.) and Eric Swalwell (Calif.), responded to Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) request for federal aid by noting that Paul had previously voted against aid to other states affected by natural disasters.
Paul has previously argued that his opposition is not to federal emergency aid per se, but to new spending being authorized for it, rather than it being reallocated from the existing budget.
On Wednesday, Biden will have the capacity to try to transcend such divisions.
He can perhaps provide a measure of healing for Kentucky — and for the nation at large.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.