President Biden is facing mounting criticism over his response to the catastrophic wildfires in Maui, with former President Trump and other critics keeping the airwaves full of attacks over how he has handled the situation.
The president ran as the empathetic politician who shines in times of crisis, but his reaction to Maui has left political watchers wondering where that Biden has gone. Biden’s “no comment” response Sunday about the rising death toll in Maui has distracted from federal relief efforts he has directed, including the dispatch of federal responders on the ground and the approval of a disaster declaration over the deadly fires.
After briefly speaking about the topic Thursday, Biden waited four days to address the fires until Tuesday when he called them “devastating.” The president said he and first lady Jill Biden would visit the area “as soon as we can,” before he pivoted to prepared remarks about the Inflation Reduction Act on a preplanned trip to Wisconsin to tout his economic accomplishments.
Principal deputy press secretary Olivia Dalton said earlier Tuesday that the White House is “currently having active conversations about when a visit to Hawaii might be possible” but gave no further details.
The White House has largely blown off criticism over the president being on vacation in Rehoboth, Del., this past weekend during the crisis; many Hawaiians have also criticized the government response on the ground.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was pressed Monday on whether the American people should see the president working the phone rather than spending time on the beach, in which she responded that “what matters” is the personnel on the ground.
Biden often connects with Americans while talking about personal loss and tragedy, and he briefly touched on that level of empathy Tuesday, days after the “no comment” response drew criticism.
“Imagine being a mom or dad wondering where your child is, imagine being a husband or wife, a mother or father. It’s really tough stuff,” he said in Wisconsin.
But the lack of addressing the wildfires for days beforehand left open an opportunity for Biden’s political opponents and critics to pounce.
Most notably was Trump, who called his successor’s handling of the crisis “disgraceful,” adding that Biden “refuses to help or comment on the tragedy in Maui.”
Trump compared Biden’s response in Maui to his response to an East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment in February, an area Biden has still not visited despite saying he would eventually. The White House at the time treated that disaster similar to Maui in that they focused their message on a quick federal response on the ground.
Trump, taking advantage of Biden’s absence, visited the train derailment site in the key swing state just weeks after it occurred.
But Trump also faced his own backlash during his presidency over an ineffective response to Puerto Rico in 2017 following Hurricane Maria that he instead touted as a great success. He did end up visiting the ravaged island, but it was overshadowed by his throwing of paper towels into a crowd seeking supplies at a shelter, to many people’s dismay.
Former President Obama, like Biden, also caught heat for being on vacation in 2016 in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., during major floods in Louisiana.
But perhaps the most infamous case of a president facing backlash over a lack of response to a disaster was former President George W. Bush, who in 2005 was photographed flying over a flooded New Orleans after it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, leaving a lasting bruise on his legacy.
Stewart Verdery, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security under Bush, noted that the politics around disaster response are always tricky.
“Unfortunately there are small disasters all over the country every day — weather, shootings, random events like an offshore oil well out of control — and the president can’t lead the mourning for every tragedy. But there are some that rise to a different level and the worst fire in a century — in a location that most people associate with paradise — certainly qualifies,” he said of Biden’s response to the Maui wildfires.
“I’d be surprised if any former senior presidential adviser ever looked back and thought their boss had shown too much public attention in a crisis,” said Verdery, CEO of Monument Advocacy.
The death toll in Maui has risen to 99 people as of Monday night, making it the deadliest wildfire in modern U.S. history. Only three bodies have been identified and only 25 percent of the area has been searched so far.
Biden on Tuesday spoke by phone with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Deanne Criswell and Hawaii Gov. Josh Green (D) while on his way to Wisconsin as well as Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz.
Almost 500 federal personnel have been deployed to Maui as of Tuesday morning, and FEMA has provided tens of thousands of meals, liters of water, cots and blankets. The White House released a fact sheet outlining disaster relief efforts so far, which included a major disaster declaration the president signed last Thursday, two days after the fire engulfed parts of the island.
“Certainly, from the very beginning the president has been on top of this and he will continue to be,” Dalton said Tuesday when asked by a reporter to address the criticism the president has faced.
Democrats warned that criticizing Biden for not scheduling a visit to Maui right away was premature.
“I’d take the criticism with a grain of salt, given that we are in a very politically charged environment. Some of the critical comments I have heard are reflexive politics. The focus needs to be on recovery efforts, and the time to visit and speak on this will be once Biden is not in the way of the recovery efforts,” said Ivan Zapien, a former Democratic National Committee official.
“This administration is pretty good at taking the valid in criticism and responding, but not getting distracted by criticism for criticism’s sake. This is a critical skill when governing and responding to a tragedy like this,” he added.
Criswell, when asked Monday about a presidential visit to Maui, told reporters that the president has given her the space to bring in personnel and responders to make sure everyone is accounted for on the ground.
“Right now, we want to make sure that they have, you know, all of the resources and the space that they need and not disrupt operations right now,” she said.