By Steve Holland
HOUSTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump took up the mantle of "comforter-in-chief" in a visit to storm-wracked Houston as he played with children and served up food to evacuees from Hurricane Harvey, the first major natural disaster of his eight months in office.
In a widely watched test of his presidential mien, Trump comforted victims and thanked volunteers and first responders after being criticized earlier in the week for not showing sufficient empathy to Texas residents during catastrophic flooding.
Trump, 71, was joined by his wife, Melania, as he passed out food and hugged, kissed and played with children at the "kid zone" in Houston's NRG Center, a 700,000-square-foot (65,000 square meter) facility that was turned in to the city's largest emergency shelter.
The day was a rare glimpse into Trump's interactions with everyday Americans outside his campaign-style rallies. The former real estate magnate appeared relaxed as he posed for photographs with volunteers and chatted with evacuees alongside Texas Governor Greg Abbott.
"It has been a wonderful thing," Trump said of his meetings with the children as he served food to evacuees amid shouts of "Thank you, sir."
Trump, who declared Sunday a national day of prayer, also went to a church in nearby Pearland, where he and his wife helped load half a dozen cars with boxes of supplies for victims. He said the volunteer work was "good exercise."
Trump also visited a neighborhood that had sustained flooding but had dried out to greet residents and praise them for doing "a fantastic job holding it together."
The visit came after a week of historic flooding in the area killed at least 40 people, displaced more than 1 million and dumped as much as 50 inches (127 cm) of rain.
Trump asked Congress late on Friday for an initial $7.85 billion for hurricane recovery efforts. The request comes as Washington faces tough budget negotiations.
The trip may have political implications for Trump. According to the Reuters/Ipsos tracking poll, almost 59 percent of the public disapproves of Trump’s performance as president.
Andrew Smith, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said Trump had done well overall in coordinating federal assistance and showing concern on Saturday for those affected by Harvey. But he would likely see little change in his poll numbers due to scrutiny of his administration's other policies.
“You can be as empathetic as you want but if your administration isn’t seen as competent in dealing with the problem, it’s not going to help you,” Smith said.
NOT HAMPERING RELIEF EFFORTS
His initial trip to Texas on Tuesday was contrasted unfavorably with the efforts of former President Barack Obama, who became known as "comforter-in-chief" after mass shootings and the Sandy superstorm that hit New Jersey in 2012.
With floodwaters still present, Trump had stayed clear of the Houston area on that trip, saying he did not want to hamper rescue efforts. Instead, he met with Cabinet members, state and local leaders and first responders in the state capital Austin and Corpus Christi, where Harvey first hit, focusing on the logistics of the government response.
Trump tweeted that he had seen "first hand the horror & devastation" from Harvey but reporters traveling with him said they saw no damage.
"That was reasonable criticism," said Matt Mackowiak, chairman of the Republican Party in Travis County, Texas, who has praised the Trump administration’s handling of the disaster.
On Saturday, some area residents, even one on the opposite side of the political spectrum, said Trump's visit was a positive.
"It raises the morale," Kevin Jason Hipolito, who identified himself as a Democrat, told reporters at the convention center. "When he went to Corpus I was like, 'Man he just forgot about us.' This shows a lot of support. It perks up morale."
But it remains a difficult task for Trump, a Republican businessman new to politics, to match expectations set by his predecessors of both parties who were widely considered politically deft at displaying solidarity and commitment to those suffering from disasters both natural and man-made.
"Is he going to help? Can he help?" Devon Harris, 37, a construction worker, said at the convention center. "I lost my home. My job is gone. My tools are gone. My car is gone. My life is gone. What is Trump going to do?"
Trump was cheered at both the convention center and a church he visited and appeared to crack a joke, perhaps at his own expense.
While donning gloves to serve food to victims of the disaster in a cafeteria, he commented "my hands are too big," referencing a meme from the presidential campaign in which the size of the candidate's hands were linked to his supposed virility by his opponents, including Republican Marco Rubio.
(Reporting by Steve Holland in Houston and Yeganeh Torbati and Jim Oliphant in Washington; Writing by Dustin Volz and Mary Milliken; Editing by David Chance and Bill Trott)