Every American should want President Trump and his administration to handle the coronavirus epidemic effectively and successfully. Those who seem eager to see the president fail and to call every administration misstep a fiasco risk letting their partisanship blind them to the demands not only of civic responsibility but of basic decency.
The virus looks likely to be the most serious acute public-health crisis Americans have had to face at home in decades. It is still spreading at exponential rates. Fatality rates are much higher than the flu and other familiar bugs, particularly for older people. There is no vaccine for the time being. The character of its spread and symptoms threatens to gradually overwhelm the capacity of health systems in affected areas, leaving them short of hospital beds and respirators to treat the most seriously afflicted patients and so dramatically increasing the risks to them. The most effective ways to mitigate this danger involve forms of social distancing that require everyone (not just those at greatest risk) to engage in measures like canceling events, limiting travel, and avoiding public places — measures that cannot help but seem extreme in our free society. That these expedients are necessary and appropriate is increasingly clear and yet difficult to explain to the public.
All of this means that the administration faces an enormous challenge, that its successes are likely to be largely invisible, and that its failures cannot help but be magnified. Therefore, we should go out of our way to acknowledge some of the capable people throughout the chain of command doing their best in very difficult circumstances. They have failed in some respects and have succeeded in others. They will do more of both, but there is reason to think they will learn from their errors and step up to the challenge.
At the same time, however, it is important that the president’s defenders not be blinded by partisanship of their own into excusing failures of leadership and diminishing the danger of the epidemic itself. This can be particularly difficult because some of the most significant inadequacies of the administration have been the president’s own. So far in this crisis, Donald Trump himself has obviously failed to rise to the challenge of leadership, and it does no one any favors to pretend otherwise.
The disastrous missteps involved in the effort to make testing kits available nationwide are not the president’s own. They are the fault of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and they represent a serious scientific, technical, and bureaucratic failure for which the appropriate officials should be held responsible. But those problems are clearly being corrected now, and there is every reason to think testing kits will soon be available to all who need them.
The failures of leadership at the top, however, show no sign of being corrected. In a serious public-health crisis, the public has the right to expect the government’s chief executive to lead in a number of crucial ways: by prioritizing the problem properly, by deferring to subject-matter experts when appropriate while making key decisions in informed and sensible ways, by providing honest and careful information to the country, by calming fears and setting expectations, and by addressing mistakes and setbacks.
Trump so far hasn’t passed muster on any of these metrics. He resisted making the response to the epidemic a priority for as long as he could — refusing briefings, downplaying the problem, and wasting precious time. He has failed to properly empower his subordinates and refused to trust the information they provided him — often offering up unsubstantiated claims and figures from cable television instead. He has spoken about the crisis in crude political and personal terms. He has stood in the way of public understanding of the plausible course of the epidemic, trafficking instead in dismissive clichés. He has denied his administration’s missteps, making it more difficult to address them.
This presidential behavior is all too familiar. It is how he has gotten through scandals and fiascos for more than three years in office. But those were all essentially political in nature, and most were self-created. The country has been lucky in the Trump era, largely avoiding the sorts of major, unforeseen crises that make the greatest demands of the modern presidency. That luck has now run out, and this demands a new level of seriousness from the president and those around him.
President Trump needs to rise to this challenge. His partisan adversaries are sure he can’t. We hope he proves them wrong.