Special: President Biden as the Consoler in Chief

Dec. 18, 2021 AT 8:30 a.m. EST

President Biden has made empathy and his own history of loss central to his political identity. On Wednesday, he visited communities devastated by the tornadoes in Kentucky, promising that the federal government would step up to help.

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- Good evening and welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I'm Yamiche Alcindor. Tonight we'll discuss President Biden's challenges in the state of our democracy. On Wednesday, President Biden traveled to Kentucky to visit communities devastated by last week's deadly tornadoes and severe storms. He promised help from the federal government.

- I'm gonna make sure the federal government steps up and make sure we do every single thing. You can see in people's faces, what they're really looking for and look around, I say to the press, what they're looking for is just to be able to put their head down on the pillow, be able to close their eyes, take a deep breath, go to sleep and make sure their kids are okay.

- That promise came as survivors of the storms described their harrowing experiences.

- It was terrifying. It was... I can't even think of any other words to describe it. It was a very terrifying experience. It looked like a landfill. That's exactly what it looked like. It just was completely demolished, it was gone.

- You know, you feel like you're in a bad dream. When I went down in the basement, I had no idea if I would come back out. Just got on my knees and began to pray and just pray for God's protection and pray for those that were in the path of this storm.

- Just moving to hear them and so happy that those people have survived, when so many have not. Joining me to discuss this tonight, Eva McKend, national politics reporter for CNN, Ashley Parker, White House bureau chief for "The Washington Post." Sabrina Siddiqui, White House reporter for "The Wall Street Journal." And Nicholas Wu, congressional reporter for POLITICO. Thank you all of you for being here. Sabrina, I wanna start with you. We saw, of course, President Biden, go into a role that he's comfortable in, which is the consoler in chief. What's the impact of a visit like this when you think of sort of how fractured our nation is and also the help that he's pledging for Kentucky?

- Well, I think this is something that President Biden, as you pointed out, is very comfortable with, you know, helping people grieve, that role of consoler in chief, and it's also more characteristic of the type of response we've seen from prior administrations in the face of tragedy with the exception of his predecessors. So there's a stark contrast between the images you saw of President Biden kinda touring the destruction and the former President Trump famously tossing toilet paper out to people in Puerto Rico after hurricane-

- [Yamiche] Thank you for reminding us about that.

- I mean, you can never not mention it, and I think, you know, this is sort of showing the way the government is supposed to work, right? Immediately deploying FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security and offering the full force of the federal government to assist. He said that, you know, for Kentucky, 100% of the recovery costs will be funded by the federal government for at least the first 30 days, he signed disaster declarations, of course, for some of the other states that were impacted by the storms. And so, you know, I think it was a day where you put the politics aside and, you know, often is helpful to presidents as well, just even in terms of the optics. I mean, it's not to politicize a tragedy, but it's something that I think shows them in that role as commander in chief and, you know, President Obama with Hurricane Sandy right before the 2012 election, that was something that in the end was kinda beneficial to him going into that election as well.

- Yeah, and, Nicholas, Sabrina's just talking about sort of putting politics aside. I wonder from your perspective in Capitol Hill, is there any impact to the fact that we're seeing these crazy severe storms, in Kentucky we're seeing, of course, flooding and scary hurricanes on the gulf, is that changing at all sort of how people talk about climate change across the aisle or not at all?

- It doesn't look like it's moved the needle that much on climate change, I mean, folks on both sides of the isle are still dug in pretty far there, but, you know, one of the most striking moments for me this week with regards to the disaster in Kentucky was actually a moment of silence that the House held the same night that they voted to hold Mark Meadows in contempt, despite all of this rancor over that, despite reading Mark Meadows' text out on the floor, right after that, you had a moment of silence on the floor where members of the Kentucky delegation got up and really thanked everyone for their support and, you know, members then pledged their support and you saw Speaker Pelosi then make her way and talk to those members of Congress after. So despite all of this division, there is still some point for unity.

- Yeah, and, Ashley, there's this point for unity. It's not, of course, he didn't go there to work on his poll numbers. But I wonder since, of course, there is this issue with President Biden's poll numbers, whether or not the White House sees sort of trips like these that presidents often make as helping him in any way sort of message to people to talk about sort of just his role as being a president, that's trying to united nation.

- I mean, very well may serve that purpose. But in my conversations, I just heard no discussion of that from people in the White House. And I think if you've even just watched, I was in Wilmington with President Biden when we woke up and there was all that destruction from the tornadoes. And if you just listen to him speak, he comes at this very earnestly and very sincerely and you listen to his off-the-cuff remarks, the thing, in addition to being an empathizer and a consoler in chief, he is someone who has known deep loss and deep tragedy in his own life. And that comes through when he talks about these people, he talks about what it is like to return to the rubble, have they maybe lost a loved one? And you know, he mentioned, and now you can't even find your kid's picture from their baptism or your wedding photos or your daughter's first ballet recital. And that is sort of immediately and naturally where his mind goes.

- Yeah, and, Eva, talk about sort of the impact of this on people. You, again, are someone who's been out there talking to voters. You covered Kentucky as a reporter. What are your thoughts?

- Well, I was just completely devastated when I saw the impact of this. I've been to Graves County. There's a popular annual political picnic in Kentucky in Graves County called Fancy Farm. And that is right in this area, in this community. I've interviewed folks there for quite some time. I remember interviewing a man from Paducah last year who, he was homeless, the stress of the pandemic, him and his kids, he ended up sleeping in his car while his partner and his kids ended up in a motel which was just devastating. And to think that this community that already has so many people with so many economic challenges, they are of all places, to experience this type of devastation just felt especially cruel. But it was comforting to see members, this is a largely Republican district, put that aside and be able to work with the president because this is, they have to, right? This is one of those times where you can't be in partisan conflict when there's a natural disaster.

- Yeah, yeah, I mean, the other sort of big story of the week has been COVID, it's been Omicron virus and the variant, I should say the Omicron variant, going around the country. Nicholas, Ed Yong from "The Atlantic" said that he canceled his, he's Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, who said that he canceled his 40th birthday party because of the pandemic. But the other thing that happened this week apart from that canceled birthday party was at the Trump officials, according to the House select committee, they were seen as deliberately trying to undermine the nation's coronavirus pandemic for political purposes. Talk a little bit about the fact that people, of course, are still living through this terrible pandemic while lawmakers are just uncovering more and more evidence about what the former president did.

- Well, this is just part and parcel of that other House investigation into the coronavirus pandemic. Like we might talk about one select committee, the one investigating January 6th, but there's this other select committee too that's investigating the coronavirus pandemic and has actually subpoenaed top Trump administration officials and is digging up things like this and peeling back more of quite how bungled the response actually was by the Trump administration, at least in those early days. And so, you know, that's something where we can expect to see more and more details come out in the future.

- Yeah, and, Ashley, when I was reading the report and sort of reading some of their findings, I was like, okay, well, this is, in some way, stuff that we lived real time because we covered former President Trump together. How impactful is it? Or maybe just what sort of impact might it have that this is really the House select committee laying out for everyone and say there's one portion where they say that a CDC official sort of felt threatened and felt bad because the administration got mad at her for warning people about how serious the COVID-19 pandemic was gonna get?

- Well, I think this is, first of all, I actually just wanna say I cannot believe that Ed Yong is only 40. I feel like he has such a breadth of knowledge, he's is also much wiser.

- He's like a 80-year-old 40-year-old .

- Much, much wiser, but, you know, I mean, I think this is something I think those of us who covered the Trump administration have dealt with it. We were reporting on it in real time, but then it's been a lot easier in certain ways to pull back the curtain and get more details, whether it's through the select committees or through reporters saying, you know, I didn't have a lot of time to really go deep on that question because I got distracted by something else. So I think the impact is that it's incredibly important, right? We need to understand how the January 6th insurrection happened. We need to understand the ways in which the Trump White House bungled their response so that the country can do better next time.

- Yeah, yeah, and, Sabrina, you know, just thinking about some sort of the things that we have to understand, the report also found out that one of the briefings where health officials were giving people factual information, it angered former President Trump so much that they were blocked for more than three months from conducting public briefings. I remember being at those briefings saying, "Where is Dr. Fauci? Where are the scientists? Now we know what happened." Your reaction to this.

- I mean, we saw a lot of this unfold in real time, right? I mean, former President Trump was routinely attacking Dr. Fauci and, you know, he was attacking the CDC. There was so much political pressure on the nation's top health officials to kinda toe the line with whatever the White House wanted to say. And that was often as we saw in conflict with the science. And so it is very much the case and it's not really in dispute that the Trump administration's response was a large part of why the U.S. did end up, being one of the leading country at one point in time with respect to COVID cases and it's death toll.

- [Yamiche] Yeah.

- And the way in which also that set the country back when you go back to the conversation we were having around the politicization of it all, you know, you cannot now turn the clock back and change the mindset of people after the Trump administration spent months and the former president himself ingraining in the minds of the public, that masking was a political statement. You know, claiming that COVID was a hoax, that it was all over blown. And so in many ways, the Biden administration has taken a very different approach, but they are still dealing with the aftermath of the Trump administration's response, not just in terms of the toll on this country, but the ongoing partisan politics around COVID and its entirety.

- Yeah, yeah, Eva, last word to you, just a couple seconds left. That you can't undo that.

- No, not at all. And, you know, I think that this issue of the pandemic response, it is going to be, the administration almost, we've talked about voting rights this evening, we've talked about the domestic policy agenda, all of that kinda falls to the wayside if the country cannot move past this pandemic.

- Yeah, yeah, that's completely true. And thank you so much to the panel for joining us and sharing your reporting and make sure to sign up for the Washington Week newsletter on our website, we will give you a look at all things Washington. And tonight we leave you with a note of hope among the wreckage. Jordan Baize playing the piano in what is left of his home in Kentucky. It was destroyed by last week's tornado. He told a local TV station that quote, "Even in the midst of trying times, there is a piece that can be found." Tonight, Jordan and all of his neighbors are in our prayers. Thank you so much for joining us, I'm Yamiche Alcindor, goodnight.


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