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Former president Barack Obama made a startling criticism of the American government’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak in a video released on Saturday addressing graduates from historically black colleges and universities. “More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing,” he said. “A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.”
As is customary, Obama mentioned no names. But his comments were clearly directed at his successor. Even as a veiled comment, Obama’s words go far beyond the norms of what a former commander in chief usually says about a sitting president. Yet they can’t be dismissed as mere partisan sniping, especially given the fact that Obama has been exceptionally cautious in the past about criticizing Donald Trump.
Obama’s observation conforms to the best reporting we have on Trump’s response to the coronavirus. From the start, Trump has followed an ostrich strategy of denying the reality of the pandemic out of fear that acknowledging the scale of the problem would damage the economy.
The current pandemic is often compared to a world-historical catastrophe like the Great Depression or the two world wars. But there is one significant difference: In all of those previous crises, America had national leadership, however shaken by events. In the pandemic, the president has been, in a very real sense, AWOL from the beginning.
To be sure, as a TV and Twitter presence, Trump is still all too present. But that is precisely the problem. Once Covid-19 could no longer be wished away, Trump’s goal became to play the heroic wartime leader, not to do the actual, difficult work of governing. Preserving his own image and reelection chances are all Trump cares about.
On Saturday, Trump tweeted a video showing a scene from the movie Independence Day (1996), where the heroic American president (played by Bill Pullman) rallies a group of fighting men with a defiant speech about the need for humanity to unite against an existential threat. The clip Trump released had his face superimposed on Pullman’s visage. The soldiers of the sci-fi epic all had pasted-on faces of Trump loyalists, including Ted Cruz (shown with tears streaking across his cheeks), Sean Hannity, and Dinesh D’Souza.
This ridiculous video was a perfect distillation of Trump’s presidency and his response to the crisis: a man intent on creating a pulp simulacrum of a heroic wartime leader.
In a comprehensive chronicle of the Trump administration’s response to the crisis, Financial Times national editor Edward Luce highlights how disengaged from reality the White House has been. “Again and again,” Luce writes, “the story that emerged is of a president who ignored increasingly urgent intelligence warnings from January, dismisses anyone who claims to know more than him and trusts no one outside a tiny coterie, led by his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner—the property developer who Trump has empowered to sideline the best-funded disaster response bureaucracy in the world.”
In essence, Kushner won Trump over to a do-nothing approach. For a six-week interlude from mid-March until late April, the surge of bad news forced Trump to act like he was doing something. But now that the pandemic is plateauing, Trump has announced a “transition to greatness” policy that is in fact a return to his initial approach of disengagement.
On Saturday, The Washington Post reported:
Trump appears poised to preside over the eventual transition more as a salesman and marketer than a decider. Many consequential actions are being done by others. The nation’s governors are overseeing their states’ plans to reopen their economies. Business leaders are making their own choices about how their employees can safely and responsibly return to work. Treasury officials are negotiating with Congress the details of financial stimulus packages. And scientists and public health officials are leading the race for a vaccine.
Some Democrats are pleased to let Trump preside merely as a figurehead. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told the Post, “At this point, I think the president has proved to be so incompetent that most of us in Connecticut don’t want him or the people that work for him micromanaging our response.”
It’s easy to sympathize with Murphy’s argument that more—and more effective—policy responses happen when Trump is out of the loop. It is true that many governors, business leaders, and scientists, along with American civil society as a whole, have learned to live without a hands-on president. In many ways, the story of the pandemic in America is of ordinary people triumphing over national leadership.
Yet there are many critical tasks for which a president is essential. Only a president can run foreign policy. In a worldwide health crisis, America needs a leader who can engage with other countries in the sharing of medical strategies and resources. Trump, alas, has failed at this job.
As Luce notes, “Trump’s dog-eat-dog instinct has been just as strong abroad as at home. A meeting of G7 foreign ministers in March failed to agree on a statement after Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, insisted they brand it the ‘Wuhan virus.’ America declined to participate in a recent summit hosted by Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, to collaborate on a vaccine.”
The power vacuum in Washington will make the pandemic much worse. America will not be engaging in much-needed international cooperation until there is a new president. By pushing for a premature end to stay-at-home orders, Trump increases the likelihood that the current plateau will be protracted, with a real possibility of a new surge.
Trump is not the only American leader who has been AWOL. Obama’s critique of Trump attracted enormous attention because the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, has been keeping a low profile. It’s true that Biden does tweet out the occasional criticism of Trump and make TV appearances. But he rarely conveys the urgency of the current crisis.
Biden seems to have decided that the low-voltage campaigning style that made him the presumptive nominee is the way forward for the general election. He might be right, politically. Keeping a low profile might win him the White House. But his anemic campaign does nothing to address the problem of a nation left leaderless during a harrowing global emergency.
Obama is stepping into the vacuum created not just by Trump but also by Biden. It’s likely that Obama will play an unusually large role in the coming election, helping to carry his vice president across the finish line. Yet, as welcome as Obama’s presence is, the fact that he’s needed calls attention to a deeper failure. Over the past four years, the American political system has failed to check a president who from the start was clearly unfit for office. Most of the blame unquestionably falls on the Republican Party, which has enabled Trump at every turn.
But the Democrats, including Obama himself, have also failed to counter Trump. Restrained by his respect for norms governing the behavior of former presidents, Obama refrained from commenting on Trump’s manifest corruption, incompetence, and degradation of the office of the presidency. He seems to have been operating from an assumption—shared by much of the political elite—that the system would restrain Trump from his worst excesses. There might have been some merit in this assumption in the early days of the presidency, when his staff kept Trump from acting on many of his impulses. But this approach was already failing before the pandemic and now stands as an elite fantasy.
In the midst of one of the greatest catastrophes ever to engulf the nation, America has no real president. Nor is it likely to get one anytime soon.