If there’s any point in the past three-plus years where the absence of effective leadership in the White House has been more glaringly apparent than before and during this pandemic, it’s not coming to me.
This isn’t for lack of competition, however, in that we’ve watched Donald Trump repeatedly put political self-interest, partisanship, petty vendettas and random peeves above the good of this country and its people.
But none of those other instances of misplaced priorities come close to being as serious and dangerous as the current situation, where hundreds of thousands of lives and our nation’s entire economy hang in the balance.
At a time when the United States desperately needs a strong voice for non-partisan, fact-driven leadership at the top, what we get are daily campaign events disguised as press briefings, where the president’s narcissism, dishonesty, craven blame-shifting and clownish dismissal of science are on full display for hours at a time.
Contrast this to governors of many states, including Ohio’s Mike DeWine, who have filled the leadership vacuum in the Oval Office with decisive and timely management in shutting down their states in order to prevent surges in COVID-19 cases that otherwise would overwhelm strained health-care resources and needlessly inflate the already sobering casualty count. The economy isn't going anywhere until people can feel safe that going out won't put them and their loved ones in danger.
Yet, what proactive governors haven’t been able to do is overcome the criminally negligent lack of direction and leadership from President Trump’s administration earlier this year and continuing to this moment. Early on, health-care experts in his administration tried to warn him what to expect and how to prepare for it, and if he listened at all (doubtful), he did little or nothing, other than selectively limit travel from China.
A responsible leader – even a barely competent one – in February or earlier would have mobilized the federal government’s massive resources toward coordinating an effective national response to the new coronavirus, including a comprehensive testing regime, ramped-up production of ventilators and PPE, and by early March, encouraging stay-at-home orders across the country.
Oh, Trump did do some things, such as exploiting his bully pulpit in public appearances to repeatedly minimize the public-health threat, calling it an exaggerated “hoax” and blaming the Democrats and the mainstream media. Later, as the threat became more difficult for Trump to understate or dismiss, he has sent mixed signals about its seriousness, selectively allocated aid to states whose governors stroked his ego, undermined social-distancing direction from his health-care experts, and acted like a distracted schoolboy as those experts provided crucial health advice to the public.
Earlier this week, President Trump said it was time to seize the reins of power from the governors who’ve been doing the heavy lifting while he fiddles amid this historical public-health conflagration. He suggested that he'd order them to open up their states, whether health experts say they’re ready or not, potentially relighting a pandemic that’s nearly or already peaking in numerous areas. (It’s not clear he has the constitutional authority to do this.)
In characteristic style, Trump had about-faced on his earlier (as in before Monday) contention that the governors, not him, had the responsibility to call the shots in fighting COVID-19. That argument ignored the importance of setting a responsible, cooperative and firm example at the top of government, while leaving local and regional details to governors. His reversed position would undermine what the state governments are best at doing, assessing their own particular circumstances and taking action accordingly, including when appropriate in cooperation with neighboring states and the federal government.
Opening up the economy and social life of this country and individual regions is vitally important, but should be done gradually, and only as soon as health-care experts provide the green light. Testing is necessary for this to happen, and if there's one area where an absence of effective federal leadership has hurt the U.S. in this crisis, it's the scant amount of testing that's available weeks into this. Much more testing and continued social distancing and sanitary practices are mandatory to avoid undoing the progress that’s been accomplished toward reopening society.
In his typical fashion, Trump by Tuesday already was waffling on his authority grab from Monday, yet another embarrassing example of his feckless crisis leadership.
ANYONE WHO TRUSTS this president to say when it’s the right time to open the country, without letting his self-interest and petty prejudices pervert that decision, is the sort of person who will touch a hot stovetop, walk behind a nervous horse, or answer “yes” when asked whether the president is doing a good job of managing this crisis.