Early Returns

Puerto Rico Needs Its President

Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.

We need you, Mr. President.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It's important for presidents to speak out publicly during crises. Not, however, like this:

Outside of the bad taste in seemingly blaming Puerto Ricans for their problems, why does it matter?

Trump Says He's Going to Puerto Rico Next Tuesday

To begin with, whether he likes it or not, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States -- not just president of the states that voted for him, or president of his strongest supporters. There is nothing wrong about a president or any other politician being especially attentive to their strongest supporters, but that's very different from just ignoring (or, for that matter, habitually antagonizing) everyone else. 

Presidents, in particular, have traditionally acted as head of state, and not just head of government -- that is, they on occasion act for the entire nation. Trump has abdicated that part of his job from the start, and that means there's no one else really available to do it. One can call the job of comforting those going through hard times purely symbolic, but that doesn't make it any less real. 

But there's also a very practical governing aspect to the president's public words. The executive branch is large and extremely difficult to manage, and among the tools presidents have are the ability to clearly indicate the direction he wants it to turn and the ability to apply public pressure to do it. Many government workers in every agency are hard-working and take their work quite seriously. But when the president spends his days feuding with pro athletes, there's no guarantee that even the best of them will work hard on the president's priorities (as opposed to whatever they happen to think is important). And those who aren't the best are likely to just slack off or worse. 

The odd thing is that Trump's public statements and actions after the hurricanes in Texas and Florida were just fine and, for what it's worth, corresponded with a modest increase in his poll numbers. Why he's failed to follow up with similar words and actions this time is a puzzle. Does he simply not care about American citizens who aren't eligible to vote? Did he just get bored of disaster relief? Is there an even uglier reason? 

The bottom line is that at least in public (and as far as has been reported so far, behind the scenes as well), Trump has handled the calamity in Puerto Rico far worse than how George W. Bush handled Katrina. And he's put himself in even more grave political risk if the relief efforts in Texas, Louisiana and Florida go wrong in any way while he's been focused on his various feuds. We can only hope that his inattention doesn't lead to anything worse than political damage. 

1. Nicholas Miller at the Monkey Cage on the dangers if Trump dumps the Iran deal

2. Jordan Ragusa on the importance of the Alabama Senate primary and how the U.S. Senate changes over time

3. I really like Kevin Drum's points about how easy tax cuts should be -- and why Republicans are having so much trouble putting a bill together. 

4. Heather Hurlburt on the latest in Trump's dustup with North Korea

5. And my Bloomberg View colleague Noah Smith assesses how the Fed did in attempting to dig out from the recession. 

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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