Presidential Leadership

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

By David L. Phillips

The United States is the most powerful and wealthiest country in the world. Yet, COVID-19 has brought America to its knees. 

So far, nearly 400,000 Americans are infected; and 10,781 are dead. The Center for Disease Control warns that as many as 240,000 Americans may die. COVID-19 doesn’t distinguish between Democrats and Republicans. It’s present in all fifty states. 
The US economy lost more than 7 million jobs in March. People who can’t afford to feed themselves or their families are lined up around the block at soup kitchens. Since March 1, the stock market has lost more than $2 trillion, or 35 percent of its value. 
Americans look for presidential leadership during a crisis. However, the COVID-19 emergency has exacerbated President Trump’s foibles – duplicity, vanity, and a mind that just doesn’t grasp the scale of the emergency.   
Trump was slow to respond, at first denying the COVID-19 crisis and calling it a hoax. Then he played down the extent of the crisis, obscuring the facts. 
His mixed messages are confusing, causing people to disregard advice from scientists. He initially dissed social distancing guidelines. When government experts told people to wear a mask, Trump declined to wear one himself.
He refuses to issue a national order for managing the virus, promoting a decentralized, federal approach. The absence of a national strategy has pitted states against each other, driving up the cost of ventilators and personal protective equipment. 
He’s made it a partisan issue, accusing democratic governors of whining. Rather than international solidarity, he’s pitted the US against other countries. 
Trump wants to fast-track the lifting of social restrictions. He pledged to open up the country by Easter, when the virus will be peaking, then backtracked. Rushing to restore the status-quo ante risks a recurrence and more misery.
By hyping the effectiveness of unproven drugs, such as hydroxychloroquine, he’s given false hope. Furthermore, he’s compressed the timeline for developing a vaccine from 12-18 months to “very soon.”
Trump is a reality television personality at his core. Instead of steely-resolve and leadership, he uses the daily press briefing to tout the “great job” he’s doing.
Trump’s approval rating has recently been going up. Americans typically rally around the leader in times of crisis. However, support is shallow. As the death toll mounts, we are already seeing a dip in his approval rating.
If Trump wants to be remembered as an effective “wartime” president, he’ll need to tackle the pandemic head-on; talk straight with the American people; and articulate a national strategy that brings us together. Instead of dividing Americans, he should lead by example; call for unity; and summon sacrifice in service of the collective good.
Getting rid of Trump would put America on the path to curing its ills. Many, myself included, wish he’d just stop talking and disappear. 
Election day can’t come soon enough.
Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Human Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Expert at the State Department under Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama.