Helpful hurricanes

Sep 15, 2017 By Steven R. Peck, Publisher

It would be callous to make too much of it, but hurricanes aren't bad for Donald Trump.

The United States has been struck by two such storms in the past 30 days, and they have given the struggling president an opportunity to improve his image as well as his performance by presenting some easy targets on policymaking and several opportunities to look "presidential" that were all but impossible to flub.

After a so-so appearance in Texas following the disastrous arrival of Hurricane Harvey, Trump managed to during a subsequent visit to stop talking about himself and to quit acting as if he were participating in a reality ride at amusement park. Those who know the man say that in certain settings he can be warm and gregarious, and he was able to demonstrate some of that fairly effectively on the second trip to Texas and a subsequent visit to Florida after Hurricane Irma had come ashore there.

Trump took some fire for his slow and awkward responses at first, but he also seemed to learn from it. That's good, because responding to a national disaster isn't always as easy as it looks. Former President George W. Bush took a pounding in the realm of public opinion for his response to Hurricane Katrina 2005, in sharp contrast to what is generally regarded as the finest single period of his presidency in the initial weeks following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. (Bill Clinton, of course, seemed made for this sort of thing, with his hands-on, I-feel-your-pain, tears-in-his-eyes appearances at the Oklahoma city bombing and subsequent emergencies establishing and solidifying his role as "comforter in chief.")

Few presidents have ever had to endure so much withering criticism tied to basic competence as Trump has this year, and the hurricanes have helped him hit something approximating a stride with Congress as well. After month after month of embarrassing futility legislatively, president was able to reach an agreement on quick hurricane relief funding that also included a provision to extend the federal debt ceiling for a couple of months.

The staff seem like relatively small potatoes, but for Trump they were real steps forward - perhaps most particularly because they included some deal-making with Democrats in Congress. No, those pictures of Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi standing next to each other with smiles on their faces weren't fake. They worked together on something, and it succeeded.

The president no doubt was grateful for the distraction as well. With every headline and TV half hour occupied first by Harvey and then by Irma, there was far less attention paid to the Mueller investigation, the ethics inquiries, the personnel revolving door, the sub-40-percent approval ratings, and endless in-party bickering that had handcuffed the new presidency.

Instead, at least for a few days, the president could appear presidential, and the Congress could appear helpful.

Agreeing to send money to the help the fourth-largest city (Houston) and the most-important electoral college state in the nation (Florida) aren't exactly Nobel Prize decisions. But with this turbulent president and this stiff-necked Congress, both actions constitute a breakthrough.

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