How Biden’s response to Hawaii wildfire disaster went so wrong

An off hand remark has landed the president in trouble – but occupants of the White House need to remember that they are always in the spotlight

John Bowden
Tuesday 22 August 2023 15:52 BST
Joe and Jill Biden to visit Hawaii to survey aftermath of wildfires

Joe Biden’s “3am phone call” moment happened this weekend, at around 7pm on a Sunday evening.

The president and first lady were enjoying a weekend of waves and sun in Mr Biden’s favourite beach getaway, Rehoboth, when he was asked by ever-present pool reporters for his thoughts on the unfolding devastation in Maui, where wildfires have left dozens confirmed dead and more missing.

“Will you come talk about the Hawaii response Mr President?” shouted a reporter from the rope line.

“No comment,” Mr Biden responded quickly.

It was a quick, offhanded remark. And one that immediately sparked its own news cycle, as Republicans and other critics jumped on him to insist that the president was unconcerned about the death and destruction.

“What a disgrace. What a dereliction of duty,” griped the right-leaning Daily Mail.

So did congresswoman Anna Paulina Luna, a rising GOP star: "When you have a president that has advocated for over $100bn going to a foreign country that really we have no place investing in while actively ignoring what is happening in Hawaii and really helping Hawaii, I think that tells you exactly what you need to know about this president."

The outrage that followed is a lesson for White House staffers and their campaign team counterparts: your boss is never off the clock. At any given moment, a crisis can unfold somewhere in America – or elsewhere – and demand a response from the president, informed by his staff and articulated by communications professionals.

An unrealistic expectation, sure. But that’s the world we live in, where presidents are expected to be ready to take that 3am phone call, even if it disrupts a vacation during a rare break in the summer heat wave. Part of it can be blamed on the expectations past presidential contenders put on the job, for good or ill, while much of it is also a creation of the 24/7 news cycle that has taken hold of Washington.

(The concept of a 3am phone call – an unexpected emergency that a president needs to be able to deal with whenever it comes – derives from a 2008 political ad from Hillary Clinton’s campaign, suggesting her then-primary opponent Barack Obama would be unable to cope with an out-of-the-blue crisis.)

To be clear, Mr Biden and his team aren’t without room for valid criticism here. The Maui wildfires began a week ago, days before he would leave for vacation. By Friday, when the president was departing Washington, Hawaiian officials were already beginning to announce investigations into their own handling of the situation as the death toll climbed.

Was there anything the president should have been doing in Washington instead of going to Delaware this weekend? Probably not; beyond holding meetings with relevant officials (which can be done remotely) and approving disaster declarations (ditto), there isn’t a long list of actions for the president to take, especially as officials in Maui urge well-wishers and would-be helpers to stay off the island.

But image is everything. Appearance is everything. There’s already an existing and growing stigma around commanders-in-chief who take frequent weekend vacations to their personal properties. And a president needs to appear informed of the situation and present at the helm in times of emergency. Sometimes that means staying home. Other times, it might just mean having a canned statement ready to go for the reporters lined up on the boardwalk.

Most of all, it means remembering that the cameras are always rolling. Your opponents are always ready. And simply refusing to participate isn’t an option.

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