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Help Wanted: A Minimally Competent President

The president was busy minimizing the significance of the outbreak again this morning:

The president is remarkably bad at reassuring the public. It is one thing to tell people to remain calm, but when the president keeps telling people to ignore the evidence of a worsening crisis and pretends that it isn’t a serious problem that will inevitably cause more alarm. The administration’s response has been as slow and lacking, and that makes Trump’s equivalent of telling people to go shopping seem even more irresponsible. The federal government dropped the ball in its initial response, and as a result of those failures the outbreak is worse than it had to be. Part of being a responsible leader is acknowledging those errors and learning from them, but the president refuses to admit error and seems incapable of learning. Even now he is still making the wildly misleading comparison with the seasonal flu. The most conservative estimates point to a fatality rate from coronavirus that is at least ten times as high as it is for the flu, so it is far more serious and could end up killing hundreds of thousands of people. Incredibly, the president is still touting the small number of confirmed cases, when that number is a measure of how far behind the U.S. is in testing for the virus. He doesn’t know how to do anything but minimize the problem and mislead the public, and there is no reason to expect that he will change in the coming months.

Trump says that “nothing is shut down,” as if that is supposed to be good news. When Italy is willing to lock down entire regions to prevent the virus from spreading further, the president’s insouciance just makes people more worried that our government doesn’t have a clue what to do.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the FDA, spoke on Face the Nation yesterday and had this to say:

DR. GOTTLIEB: Well, I think no state and no city wants to be the first to basically shut down their economy. But that’s what’s going to need to happen. States and cities are going to have to act in the interest of the national interest right now to prevent a broader epidemic [bold mine-DL].

MARGARET BRENNAN: Shut down their economy? You mean–

DR. GOTTLIEB: Close businesses, close large gatherings, close theaters, cancel events [bold mine-DL]. I think we need to think about how do we provide assistance to the people of these cities who are going to be hit by hardship, as well as the localities themselves to try to give them an incentive to do this. Right now, if there’s no economic support to do this, you don’t want to be the first to go. And I think you’re seeing that. This exposes one of the challenges of our federal system that we leave a lot of authority to state and local officials. And there’s a good- there’s good reasons why. But in a situation like this, we want them to act not just in their local interests, but the national interests, I think we need to think about both trying to coerce them. We can’t force them but also try to provide some incentives in terms of support. And we’re going to end up with a very big federal bailout package here for stricken businesses, individuals, cities and states. We’re better off doing it upfront and giving assistance to get them to do the right things than do it on the back end after we’ve had a very big epidemic [bold mine-DL].

A semi-competent and responsible president would be making preparations to assist states and municipalities with funding to get them through the difficult weeks and months to come. A competent president would be appealing to the public to prepare themselves and to be willing to make sacrifices for the good of the country as a whole. There will need to be a coordinated effort to provide economic relief to the areas of the country that are hardest hit by the dislocation and disruption that quarantines will create. The president and Congress ought to be working together to organize that effort. There will be a lot of Americans that need assistance because of this crisis, and the government needs to be providing that assistance now to prevent the outbreak from getting a lot worse.

Trump’s latest remarks show that he doesn’t understand any of this. It has become common to describe Trump’s bungling of the outbreak as his “Katrina” moment (which conveniently ignores his mishandling of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria), but it is actually much worse than that.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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