The Corner

White House

First a Pause, Then a Return

President Donald Trump addresses the coronavirus response daily briefing at the White House, March 23, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Over at The Atlantic, I make the case today that policymakers have lacked a clear strategic framework for thinking about the relationship between the public-health and economic challenges that confront us in the fight against the coronavirus. We need to understand the approach we are taking as a hard pause and then a soft start.

Both elements are essential. And the goal of both, combined, is to enable us to gradually and safely begin to resume our national life after a necessary period of extreme isolation and shut-down. We will need to find a way to live relatively safely with the virus for some time, because we cannot shut down our society entirely until it is fully defeated.

But that this is the goal doesn’t mean we can begin that return immediately. Our strategy can only work if we persist in the pause we have begun until the health system looks plausibly to have passed a peak of intensive-care cases, and until we have made some essential preparations that could enable a safer gradual resumption of life. In many places that peak is probably weeks away, not months. So it makes sense to prepare for the gradual loosening that should come after it, to think about the milestones that would signal progress in that direction, and to prepare the resources we will need to make that return work.

But it doesn’t make sense to pretend that this peak has already been reached. It has not. The worst of this outbreak is not behind us. It is ahead of us. Just ahead. To pretend otherwise now would be deeply irresponsible. And there is no other way to describe the president’s rhetoric and behavior around this question today than deeply irresponsible.

Among other things, the kind of reckless escapism he’s indulging in — turning to economic questions in place of public-health questions as though we don’t have to consider both together — threatens to discredit any serious effort to begin preparing for a gradual return to normality. The president’s rhetoric posits a choice between a public-health catastrophe and economic ruin, when his very difficult job right now is precisely to chart a course between the two, and to be honest with the country about what to expect and when. We don’t get to just wish away the danger, though we also shouldn’t imagine that we can stay locked away forever.

No one should diminish the enormous difficulty of the president’s job right now. He bears an awful, heavy burden. But that is not an excuse for so blatantly failing to lead.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.

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