President Joe Biden last week interrupted his family vacation for a short visit to Hawaii to view the devastation wrought by the Maui wildfires. It was not his finest hour.
Americans have come to expect their leaders to visit the scenes of exceptional trauma and destruction. The victims of such tragedy need comfort and sympathy, and a president’s presence signals that the nation cares about their recovery and well-being and will unite to aid in reconstruction.
The Maui disaster certainly qualifies as such an event. The death toll from the fast-moving wildfires is 115 and climbing, as nearly 400 people remain missing. An entire town — Lahaina, a tourist favorite with a deep history — was wiped off the map.
Yet from the start, the administration’s response has been tone-deaf and odd. As the fires raged, a reporter traveling with the president on vacation in Delaware asked him about the mounting death toll. Mr. Biden responded with a terse “no comment.” Only this week — nearly two weeks after the fact — did the White House offer the feeble explanation that the president hadn’t heard the question.
Mr. Biden then proceeded to take another vacation, this one in Lake Tahoe at the estate of major Democratic donor Tom Steyer. Amid growing criticism, the president temporarily interrupted his Tahoe sojourn on Monday for a brief trip to Maui to survey the ravaged island. White House officials claimed that he hadn’t gone earlier because he didn’t want to distract emergency officials in their efforts to stabilize the situation.
But many Hawaiians were in no mood to tolerate the administration’s muddled response. “From his armored SUV, he may have seen the middle finger interspersed with locals flashing the friendlier ‘hang loose’ greeting,” CNN’s Michael King noted of Mr. Biden’s trip. As the motorcade made its way through Maui, one man held a sign reading “No comment.”
Some of Mr. Biden’s comments also raised eyebrows. While talking to community members in a local gymnasium, the president repeatedly referenced the fact that he had lost his wife and daughter in a car crash more than 50 years ago. “He also recounted an electrical fire that caused smoke at his home in Delaware — a relatively minor incident compared to the devastation on display in Maui,” Mr. King reported.
In a later speech, the president told a story about a lightning strike on his house when “I almost lost … my ’67 Corvette and my cat.”
By Tuesday, Mr. Biden was back in Lake Tahoe. The grieving people of Maui, meanwhile, have more to worry about than the president’s kitchen fire and an imperiled feline.
These horribly awkward remarks are the latest in a long line of Biden gaffes dating back decades, but they’re especially inappropriate given the somber setting. Americans look to presidents in times of despair to symbolize empathy, strength, resilience and leadership. Mr. Biden’s unfortunate response to the Maui calamity has been woefully lacking in that regard.
This commentary originally appeared in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.