President Trump talks like he wants to win reelection in November. He brags repeatedly about what a great job he’s doing, while trashing his Democrat foes. His reelection campaign is raising money, running ads and reaching out to voters like any normal campaign would.
Yet Trump is surprisingly reluctant to take steps that would help contain the coronavirus faster, limit the economic carnage it’s causing and improve his reelection odds. Trump has never been shy about invoking federal powers to fulfill campaign promises like building a southwest border wall or slapping tariffs on imports. Yet he acts as if defeating the coronavirus is somebody else’s job and all he needs to do is cheer from the sidelines.
Most notably missing is a plan for getting the virus under control and gradually reopening the economy. Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and several colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute published such a plan two weeks ago. Trump is reportedly setting up a second White House committee to explore how best to restart the economy. Why not hire Gottlieb to run it? Trump appointed Gottlieb to the FDA in 2017, so he wouldn’t have to commit mortal sin by hiring a Democrat. Gottlieb knows the federal bureaucracy from his time at the FDA and would probably work well with other government experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci.
But Trump may suffer from not-invented-here syndrome, a paralyzing refusal to embrace somebody else’s good ideas. We also know he disdains science and considers his “gut” a better guide to problem-solving. On top of that, Trump may be afraid to do anything that makes it look like he’s failing, like calling in outside help.
It’s common knowledge by now that a crucial step for containing the virus is widespread testing on a scale orders of magnitude beyond what we have right now. The best way to accomplish that is through a moon-shot federal effort to muster all national resources available. Trump, however, demurs. “We’re the federal government,” Trump said on April 6. “We’re not supposed to stand on street corners doing testing.” Oh.
While Trump fiddles, businesses are closing everywhere, with perhaps 30 million Americans likely to lose their jobs in April. The unemployment rate could hit levels last seen in the 1930s. The only uplifting news of late was a rally in stocks, which might not last. For these reasons, the Trump-o-meter this week reads FAILING, the second-worst score.
The same Trump who’s unwilling to inject the government in a national health crisis was willing to declare a national emergency in 2019 to snatch several billion dollars’ worth of funding for his pet border wall from other federal accounts. The year before, he made the laughable claim that national security concerns justified the imposition of tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. He has issued multiple executive orders to give himself powers not explicitly granted by Congress or the Constitution. Trump has flexed the muscle of the presidency more than any modern commander in chief.
Except on coronavirus, which is a public health emergency that must be tamed before we can begin to repair the economic damage. Trump obviously knows his reelection odds decline with every business closure and every missed rent or debt payment. The damage compounds by the day, with economists now predicting a severe drop in second-quarter output, followed by a slow recovery, if we’re lucky. Many Americans asking themselves if they’ve ended up better off under Trump by next fall will answer no.
Trump may feel anxious, but there’s no sense of urgency in anything his administration is actually doing “Hopefully, we’re going to be opening up — you could call it opening — very, very, very, very soon, I hope,” Trump said on April 9. He’s now pushing for some kind of national reopening around May 1. Hopefully.
There’s one very, very, very, very inconvenient problem, though: Trump doesn’t get to decide when businesses reopen. That’s up to governors and mayors. And most of them aren’t likely to send people back to work until they can be sure the virus won’t resurge, overwhelming hospitals all over again. That’s going to take way longer than Trump—or anybody—wants. The time to throw everything possible at this problem was last month.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: firstname.lastname@example.org. Encrypted communication available. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.