WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden is heading down to Texas, one week after the state was ravaged by a winter storm that left millions without electricity and clean water for days.
It will be his first trip as president to a disaster zone and his first trip to the state since becoming president.
Biden during a call with governors on Thursday told Texas Gov. Greg Abbott that he was looking “forward to coming down tomorrow to Houston to be with you.”
“I want you and the residents to know that we’re here to provide the federal assistance you need to support your state, your local and tribal response efforts,” Biden said of his trip.
Biden will visit Houston with first lady Jill Biden, and meet with local leaders to discuss the storm, relief efforts and recovery. Biden will tour the Harris County Emergency Operations, as well as the Houston Food Bank. The president will also visit a COVID-19 health center where vaccines are being distributed at NRG Stadium. Biden will spend much of his day with Abbott.
At least 4.3 million Texans lost electricity last week during the winter storm. Millions more lost water or were under a boil advisory. Texas is not part of the national power grid, and has its own electrical grid that covers nearly the entire state. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas operates Texas’ electrical grid, and has come under fire due to the outages.
“This is not a partisan issue,” press secretary Jen Psaki said of Biden’s trip during an appearance on ABC’s “The View” on Thursday. “This is not just impacting Democrats or Republicans, it’s impacting all the people in the state.”
In addition to Abbott, Biden will meet with several elected officials during his visit to the state, including Sen. John Cornyn, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Reps. Sylvia Garcia, Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher.
Sen. Ted Cruz is not meeting with Biden and instead gave a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida. Cruz came under fire after briefly flying to Cancun, Mexico, with his family last week after they lost power during the storm. Cruz flew back to Texas after his trip became public.
Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Friday there was neither an invitation nor request for Cruz to attend the trip.
Biden’s Deputy National Security Adviser Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall told reporters Friday that as of Thursday afternoon, more than $9 million in assistance has been awarded to Texas.
“Although we’re encouraged by the progress that has been made, and we’re seeing the numbers come down dramatically right now in terms of who needs to still go and boil water in Texas, we will continue to look for ways to help through this next phase of recovery,” she said during a brief press briefing on Air Force One.
Biden has approved a major disaster declaration for over 100 counties in the state. Psaki said that the president’s trip comes as Texas is entering the recovery stage.
“There obviously was a period of time where we needed to make sure that people were safe,” Psaki said on The View. “Now we’re at the recovery stage, where we need to make sure people have access to clean water, access to places to live and to stay. So the president wants to survey the damage, so he can tap into all the resources and the federal government.”
This trip will likely be a continuation of Biden’s message of empathy, which defined his campaign.
“Joe Biden’s calling card has been empathy and a desire and ability to connect with people, particularly people that have experienced hardship or trauma,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s going to be the day where we can expect to see more of the Joe Biden that people have become accustomed to.”
Henson noted that Biden’s predecessor, former President Donald Trump, didn’t often display empathy during his presidency. For example, Trump was heavily criticized after visiting Puerto Rico in 2017, which had been ravaged by back to back hurricanes. During that visit, Trump helped distribute supplies and went on to throw a paper towel like it was a basketball. At the time critics said the president was downplaying the destruction, as thousands of Puerto Ricans were without power, had lost their homes and many had died from the storms.
Brandon Rottinghaus, professor of political science at University of Houston and author of Inside Texas Politics, noted that Biden’s approval rating in the state is “respectable for a Democratic president.” According to a poll conducted by the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs, Biden’s approval rating in the Lone Star State is at 41%.
“This is a good moment for him to come to take advantage of that approval,” Rottinghaus said. “There’s a bit of a halo around the Biden White House, and it’s a moment that the President could possibly, you know, use to to sell the Democratic brand in Texas at this moment.”
Contributing: Asher Price, Austin American-Statesman
Reach Rebecca Morin at Twitter @RebeccaMorin_