The president is a busy person. What is the point of the president (currently Trump) taking time out of his busy schedule to pose for a few pictures in a city struck by disaster?

  • 70
    These sort of visits are hardly unique to Trump or the US. I've rephrased your question to be more neutral and less of an opinionated attack on Trump.
    – user11249
    Aug 30, 2017 at 17:37
  • 4
    To get positive publicity. With his current popular approval rating, he needs to take any opportunity he can get to improve it.
    – alephzero
    Aug 30, 2017 at 21:27
  • 7
    Maybe @StephenG. But it's also a very "hot-button" topic where things tend to get out of hand very fast if you're not careful in how you phrase things. Better to prevent that if possible. I don't think anything about the question was lost by the edit.
    – user11249
    Aug 31, 2017 at 3:28
  • 5
    Note that Trump is being criticized not for going, but for not meeting any of the affected citizens: twitter.com/2020fight/status/902709019009179648
    – Federico
    Aug 31, 2017 at 12:03
  • 4
    Because if he doesn't go, his political enemies will accuse him of not caring about those affected.
    – Valorum
    Sep 1, 2017 at 15:44

9 Answers 9

  1. To express that he cares and is taking the emergency seriously.
  2. To see what the area's needs are first hand.
  3. Cynically, to garner votes.

During Katrina, George W. Bush was criticized for not going sooner.

During Sandy, Democrat Barack Obama was effusively praised by Republican New Jersey governor Chris Christie for Obama's show of support.

It is possible for something to be the right thing to do, to give the impression of being the right thing to do, and to be the selfish thing to do all at the same time. People expect their elected representatives to pay attention when they are suffering.

Donald Trump is going because it is expected of him. And maybe because he thinks it is helpful. Or even just to make people feel better.

When the time comes to ask Congress to authorize funds, having been there gives more credence to what he will say. In and of itself, that may make it worth it.

Perhaps the intelligent thing would be to have someone lower profile do this. But that wouldn't be nearly as emotionally satisfying to the victims. And politicians are far more subject to emotional than intellectual reactions.

  • 6
    I guess point 2 would be valid if a visit from the president didn't cause more harm than good. Have you ever had a president visit your town? It's very disruptive. Besides, there are better people to make this assessment, Don't take this as Trump support - that guy is a horse's hairy backside. Points 1 and 3 are probably more on-target. Aug 30, 2017 at 22:02
  • 6
    I would add one more thing: Its a major morale booster for people on the scene. If you're in a devastated area and perhaps you just lost your home, it is pretty powerful for the leader of the country to come down and say you're doing great. Aug 30, 2017 at 22:13
  • 8
    @DonBranson It's not clear that Houston would notice the extra disruption right now. Aug 30, 2017 at 22:37
  • 5
    You have to realize that virtually no politician has any clue how to really deal with the problems. They are not educated in engineering, physics, technology, or anything that actually matters. So, it's not like they actually do anything but maybe crack the whip to get others to do things so they don't look bad. That is really all a president is... a modern day pharaoh. Aug 31, 2017 at 5:29
  • 10
    Presidents and prime-ministers etc. are pretty much in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" position when a natural (or other) disaster hits... if they don't attend (or don't do so promptly enough) they are slammed by [parts of] the media for "not caring"; if they do attend, they will be slammed for "milking the situation". NOTE this is in no way specific to Trump or the US (I've seen the same in the UK across multiple PMs) – for whoever's in power, the bit of the press that dislikes them will use a disaster as an opportunity to attack them one way or the other.
    – TripeHound
    Aug 31, 2017 at 11:57

When a large-scale disaster happens, the head of government is expected to visit the site in person. The intention is to provide emotional support for the disaster relief forces and the victims of the catastrophe by showing that the government is aware of their situation.

Here is Barack Obama visiting the area of the Waldo Canyon Fire: Barack Obama with firemen

Here is German Chancellor Angela Merkel visiting soldiers building an improvised dam to contain a flood in 2014: Angela Merkel with Soldiers

Here is Theresa May, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, investigating the remains of the Grenfell Tower: enter image description here

  • 1
    Not only that, he is meeting with the governers to discuss an aid budget
    – Charlie
    Aug 30, 2017 at 18:50
  • 2
    I was suggesting making the claim stronger; instead of "everyone does it", "everyone has always done it." You show three modern politicians doing it, but you could have had thousand year old examples. I don't mean you should bother with sourcing some, but I would have noted it.
    – user9389
    Aug 30, 2017 at 19:07
  • 9
    @Carpetsmoker, a nitpick: In a monarchy, the monarch is the head of state. You were thinking of the head of government.
    – chirlu
    Aug 30, 2017 at 19:12
  • 4
    @notstoreboughtdirt: Yes. There aren't many photos from 1000 years ago, but here is one of Winston Churchill inspecting the aftermath of a German air raid in 1941: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coventry_Blitz#/media/… Aug 31, 2017 at 7:36
  • 4
    The Queen is the emotional and ceremonial representative of the country. When she makes that sort of visit, she symbolizes the country's concern. She is outside politics, and so not blamed for political failures. Theresa May got booed and was surrounded by security. The Queen mingled with the victims and witnesses. Sep 1, 2017 at 22:05
  1. In the military, it's called "leadership function".

    Being seen "leading" is important to the people, even if there's no tangible benefit from your presence. At the very least, it doesn't give impression that you are out of touch, hiding, not sure what to do, or any other thing they don't want to see in a leader.

  2. It shows "caring".

    Yes, it's for show, but people still feel better when The Leader Of Free World (or just their local Mayor) are seen as taking notice of their problems. It's an emotional boost.

  3. As prior answers said, it's good politics, especially of CYA variety.

    People tend to blame officials for Act Of God event downsides (although, as a recent FiveThirtyEight podcast discussed, more of that is aimed at local/state ones than federal ones); so they will blame someone for NOT visiting if anything goes wrong as "out of touch". Whether their visit had any relevance to outcomes is rather irrelevant to that.

  4. Finally, in some cases, it can be personal motivation.

    People feel bad about a disaster, and want to do something. Showing up is "doing something", so they want to do that.

  • 9
    The big thing missing here is it gives them a feel for the actual scope of the disaster. There is something about being there that no amount of pictures, descriptions, or videos can do to actually give you the feel for the scope of some disasters. Aug 30, 2017 at 19:29

TL;DR Leadership is about symbolism, not just utility

There are wider issues than the immediate practical needs of the area struck by disaster.

Leadership works on a symbolic level as well as a pragmatic one. A head of government makes decisions about budgets and policy; but he or she is also expected to articulate a response to the hopes and fears of the public. There are practical benefits to visiting the scene of a disaster, as the national leader is able to meet with local officials and survey the damage first-hand; but to a large extent these are secondary to the symbolic effects.

A personal visit symbolises commitment to helping the people affected, and supporting the emergency services. Winston Churchill is remembered for visiting sites of bomb damage during the Second World War:

Churchill in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral

A speech or press release cannot possibly match the emotional impact of physically embracing the victims:

George W Bush at the 9/11 site
(source: at www.georgewbushlibrary.smu.edu)

In a broader sense, any of us could be caught in a disaster at any time. The government seeks to reassure everyone that it will be ready to protect us. If the head of government doesn't care (or at least seem to care) about people in another city, he or she probably doesn't care about me either. An indifferent response to disaster can have severely negative effects on a government's popularity.

For example, British Prime Minister Theresa May was heavily criticised when she visited the scene of the Grenfell Tower fire, and met with police but not any of the victims:

Theresa May
(source: itv.com)

  • "...he or she is also expected to articulate a response to the hopes and fears of the public." The response to the fear of loosing your existence by a flood is some high ranking official to waive a flag somewhere nearby? I have difficulties believing that this actually works. It's a bit like faith moving mountains. Aug 31, 2017 at 14:13
  • 1
    @Trilarion: Obviously if symbolic gestures are the only response, the government will not be popular. Effective measures on the ground are important; but so is the symbolic element. Aug 31, 2017 at 14:53

The implication of your question is that there is no point, and you may be right. There may be no practical benefit to a leader being physically present at the site of a disaster. Their presence may even interfere with rescue efforts.

Other answers have cynically examined the leader's motives, suggesting that it's an attempt to garner votes, etc. My answer is to cynically examine the motives of the leader's opponents:

If a leader doesn't do this, then despite the dubious value and potential harm of doing it, the media will disingenuously attack them as lacking concern or compassion. At the extreme, leaders have been attacked for not Tweeting their sympathy and concern within hours of an event, before accurate information is known to the public or possibly even to authorities.

  • Yes, he may use this to justify the visit. But it would still mean that the visit did not serve any actually useful purpose. Aug 31, 2017 at 14:30

In politics, perception is reality. A president who surveys the damage through the window of Air Force One is perceived as being out of touch, not involved, and uncommitted. A president who lands on the ground is perceived as being compassionate and in touch.

After Katrina, President Bush wanted to land Air Force One at a nearby air base, and visit the scene first hand. But the Air Force told him that such a move would mean shutting down the base for three hours, and that meant delaying receiving food, water, medicine, and supplies for three hours. Bush did the compassionate thing, and kept the base open. But he released a picture of himself surveying the damage from 10,000 feet in the air.

The press was merciless. He was portrayed as an incompetent, uncaring president. To this day, people blame Bush for the fact that recovery from Katrina took years rather than months, and is still going on. With regard to Harvey, on the other hand, news reporters are already saying that the recovery is going to take years, and they aren't laying the blame for that on president Trump.

As a side note, all of the major news networks sent their anchor down to Houston to report from the scene, in spite of the fact that they might have delivered a better report by staying put, and obtaining information and video via the digital network. Intellectually, the public knows that information travels around the globe in seconds. Emotionally, we still think things are they way they were 70 years ago.

  • "Emotionally, we still think things are they way they were 70 years ago." I agree although rationally I think we are clever enough to see through this. We know that a visit of someone will not and cannot undo the damage of a big hurricane to our lives, that needs lots of money and time. Maybe it could do something against the immediate grief, kind of symbolically expressing condolences for the victims as well as support as representative of the whole community. Then it would probably be nice to be there in person (if possible). Aug 31, 2017 at 14:20
  • 2
    Whoever thinks politics is ruled by reason hasn't been paying attention for the last 230 years or so. Aug 31, 2017 at 16:44
  • You make a good point about symbolism. Another answer led off with "Leadership is about symbolism". Aug 31, 2017 at 16:46
  • 1
    Emotionally, we still think things are the way they were 40,000 years ago.
    – barbecue
    Sep 4, 2017 at 0:51

From a purely practical point of view, nothing.

From a sentimental and symbolic point of view, he is showing that he at least pretends to care that the flood is happening and that people are affected. And this reassures the people affected by the flood and people who are doubting Trump's compassion.

  • "And this reassures the people affected by the flood and people who are doubting Trump's compassion." This is kind of speculative. We don't know if there is any reassurance effect existing in this case. But the rest is spot on. Aug 31, 2017 at 14:09

In addition to the other reasons cited, an authorization of certain kinds of disaster relief can be authorized only after one of a small number of very senior political leaders (e.g. a Governor, the President, a few others), personally inspects the affected area and then signs an authorization for disaster relief to be provided.


He is going to discuss with the State governers a budget for aid and financial support. This, of course, is much more effective if done in person.

  • 7
    This answer ignores the fact that Trump went out into the streets and posed for pictures. Is there where the meeting with the state governors is going to be held? Also, the state governors usually come to Trump.
    – Imean H
    Aug 30, 2017 at 20:09
  • 4
    Trump was happy to meet his Cabinet at the weekend by teleconference from Camp David. Why couldn't he do that with the Governor of Texas? Aug 30, 2017 at 22:41

You must log in to answer this question.