Not since World War II has the nation been so in need of strong, steady leadership, not just the kind that demands results by edict, but transformational leadership which inspires and achieves lasting results by changing behavior. This can only occur when people trust their leaders and willingly follow their guidance even when it is inconvenient. This is the sort of leadership that can change the very culture of an organization or a nation. Our own War of Independence and World War II produced many such leaders but in the current national crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic they seem in scant supply.
One aspect of the national culture that needs to change has to do with political behavior. I wrote several weeks ago that in crises such as this which constitute an existential threat to the nation, it is critical that that we put aside policy disagreements and rally around our elected leaders. Leaders need support to lead effectively. Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have.” The same might be said about our elected leaders. Elections give us the means to change them in an orderly manner but short of impeachment, which is hugely disruptive, as we have seen, in a crisis we need to be led by the leaders we have, not the ones we wish we had.
I urged that it behooves us for our own and the nation’s good to put partisan politics on the back burner until we have this epidemic well under control. That’s admittedly a tough assignment for politicians in the campaign mode and members of the media. Although, there have been some heartening examples of bi-partisan cooperation between the federal and state governments, politics as usual still prevails in the media and the Congress. It’s to be expected, perhaps, on the part of a media that thrives on controversy and dissent but one would have expected more from Congress which at this writing is still in recess, absent from Washington even as frontline workers keep what’s left of the economy running, risking their own health.
The Trump Administration’s performance in this crisis to date has been mixed. The ventilator supply seems now to be sufficient and Trump has said he plans to provide some to other countries in dire need. U.S. hospitals have not been overwhelmed, although medical providers have suffered from lack of protective equipment. Testing availability is rapidly improving although never fast enough to satisfy his critics. Mr. Trump invites criticism daily by bragging about the amount of testing we have done compared with other nations as if it were some kind of contest. His early bans on foreign travel saved lives but, of course, more could have been saved by earlier action which could probably be said about any reaction to a crisis for which everyone was unprepared. He wisely put a temporary halt to most immigration but with many exceptions including seasonal farm workers which critics said, without evidence, he excluded only after a backlash. The pandemic has yet to peak in many areas including Africa, the Asian subcontinent, South and Central America and Mexico and when it does it may well overwhelm their ability to cope with it. Nevertheless, he was criticized by the open borders crowd.
One of Mr. Trump’s best displays of personal leadership in my view has been his willingness to devote about two hours a day, plus preparation time, to brief the nation on TV in an attempt to keep anxious Americans, many confined to their homes, worried about getting sick, losing their jobs and the health of family members, informed on progress and problems in fighting the pandemic. Why would Americans not want to hear daily from their president and chief decision maker and his task force of experts at a time like this regarding what is most on their minds? During World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats were something we eagerly looked forward to even though they were, by comparison, rather light on detail.
Yet, he is reflexively criticized by liberal pundits who seem incapable of giving Trump credit for anything and by Democrat candidates who obviously resent the president’s daily TV exposure in an election year. Could the briefings be improved? Well, of course. Mr. Trump is not a polished speaker and it shows when he shares the platform with others who are. He is repetitious and can’t seem to finish a thought without moving to another. He becomes defensive when he senses criticism. He spends far too much time bragging about what he has accomplished. He doesn’t always get things right such as when he asserted that he has final say over everything the governors do or don’t do. He doesn’t, of course. Ours is a federal system. We are a union of states and those states have certain rights under the Constitution. Fortunately, he backed off this position and the recovery guidelines gave the lead to the states where it belongs. His unfortunate “liberation” tweets referring to Michigan and Virginia were seized upon by the media as supportive of the demonstrators defying social distancing requirements but were intended to point out the overreach by governors in those states in placing unnecessary restrictions on its citizens. Finally, we could do without his medical suggestions based on hunches and anecdotes and leave those matters entirely to his medical experts and other scientists.
But the public knew that Mr. Trump was not your typical politician or a polished speaker and they elected him anyway because they were tired of conventional politicians blowing smoke. And in an emergency such as this they want to hear regularly from the person in charge, not just the talking heads in the media. To his credit, with all he has to deal with and with all the responsibilities weighing upon him, he’s there every day and, most of the time at least, displays uncharacteristic patience, at least most of the time, in answering some truly idiotic questions from hostile media members, anxious to provoke a fight or create something to write about.
Most of us, I think, appreciate him for it and want him to succeed in dealing with this crisis because if he fails, so might we all.