President Donald J. Trump addressed the American people from the Oval Office amidst widening fears of the coronavirus (COVID-19) on March 11. It was a prime time opportunity for Trump to offer assurance and provide policy direction. He failed.
The American people expect their President to inspire confidence in times of crisis. Trump spoke for eleven minutes, unnerving his audience and rattling markets.
Though Trump used a teleprompter, he could barely read the speech. His message was muddled and confused, incoherent at times.
Blaming others for the “alien virus”, he announced a travel and trade ban on Europe. The policy was so inchoate, the administration quickly issued retractions and clarifications. Only travel, not trade is restricted. US citizens are exempt.
Rather than proactive about addressing the crisis, Trump was blame-shifting and self-congratulatory. He called COVID-19 a “hoax”, asserting that media coverage of the virus is part of a political conspiracy to destroy his presidency.
Trump views scientists and professionals as part of the deep state that’s out to get him. He undermined the architecture for fighting pandemics, since becoming president. He closed the White House National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security in 2018. In that same year, the CDC's lack of funding forced them to slash their work preventing global pandemics by 80%.
He downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic for six weeks after the disease was first identified in the United States. Without testing and quarantines during this critical time, the infection expanded exponentially.
Americans demand honesty and steely-eyed realism, not denial and happy talk. Unlike Trump, Joe Biden offered a three-point plan to mitigate the crisis:
- Expand testing to determine the extent to which people are affected by the Coronavirus.
- Emphasize preparedness to treat those infected and increase hospital capacity, mobilizing ventilators for patient care.
- Intensify efforts to develop a vaccine for treating those infected and preventing new infections.
Biden’s “whole of government” approach includes a safety net for those affected by business or school closings. He supports a comprehensive response to flatten the curve and slow transmission that requires social distancing and suspending large public gatherings. Non-essential domestic airline travel, which exposes people to risks, should be discouraged.
International cooperation is also critical. Trump initially rejected the World Health Organization’s offer for help with testing. He blamed European countries for transmitting the virus, preferring recrimination over knowledge-sharing. He banned travel to/from China, which bought time, but Trump wasted the window of opportunity with inaction.
The Trump doctrine of “America first” falls flat when facing a global health pandemic. COVID-19 ignores borders, afflicting people everywhere.
Presidents are remembered for their character and leadership in times of crisis. Franklin D. Roosevelt held fireside chats to rally Americans against fascism. Kennedy, Carter and Reagan championed freedom and human rights to counter Communism. Bush rallied the country against Islamist terrorism after 9/11.
How will the Trump presidency be remembered?
Trump was banking on unprecedented prosperity to define his time in office. However, the economic recovery launched by Obama after the 2008 credit crisis has collapsed in a matter of days. When the stock market surrendered twenty percent of its value, he blamed it on “fake news”. Despite the Fed cutting interest rates to zero, recession looms large.
Trump’s worst qualities are accentuated in a national emergency. Narcissism and hubris define him. Narcissism is the Achilles heel of good government; hubris undermines leadership. Trump’s compassion deficit compounds his shortcomings.
Donald J. Trump is a caricature of flawed presidential leadership. Many people will suffer and lives will be lost as a result of his ignorance and incompetence.
Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Human Rights at Columbia University. He served as a Senior Adviser to the US State Department during the administrations of President Clinton, Bush, and Obama.