If the American people emerge from the coronavirus crisis relatively unscathed it clearly will not be as a result of strong White House leadership. In recalling political crises that the nation has faced since its inception, even Herbert Hoover managed the ’29 economic crash better than Donald Trump has handled this health emergency. From the Civil War to the depression to the Cuban Missile Crisis never has there been a situation where a President has demonstrated such gross ineptitude in comprehending the priorities and needs of the country.
Professor Graham Allison at Harvard made an art of studying crisis decision-making beginning with his ground-breaking study of the Cuban missile crisis. Since then political scientists have sought to understand what unique forces are at play in a crisis. What are the specific traits that Presidents need to address effectively both salient and non-salient crises? What are the lessons to be learned from John Kennedy’s handling of the missile crisis which later presidents can apply to any crisis, be it domestic or national security? President Harry Truman rose out of virtual obscurity to become a decisive decision maker; from dropping the bomb on Hiroshima, to responding to an invasion in Korea, to the firing General McArthur.
While admittedly before becoming president, President Trump never faced any decision-making crisis affecting so many people, there is no excuse for his current failings. There are many people in the federal government who were around during 9/11, during the recession of 2007/8/9, during Katrina, and during earlier health crises who comprehend the nature of the current crisis and the options available to managing the COVID-19 virus. Most of the Government bureaucrats and upper level civil servants have their own political preferences; but they leave them outside their offices. They recognize that these concerns must never impact their ability to function effectively during a national crisis.
For Donald Trump the reverse is true. First, he weighs his political considerations and then he makes his decisions. In fact, while observing his presidency for over three years, frequently it appears that Donald Trump even puts his own financial interests ahead of his political priorities. It is precisely this parochial, self-interested thinking which, ironically, could be his political undoing.
President George W. Bush’s failure in 2005 to address in a timely manner the natural crisis created by Hurricane Katrina is considered to have contributed in no small measure to the Republican Party’s huge electoral defeat in the 2006 mid-year election. President Carter’s bumbled Iran hostage rescue attempt and his subsequent failed negotiations made his re-election for a second term in 1980 doubtful at best, even if he had not been running against Ronald Reagan. In 1992, George H.W. Bush failed to win re-election at least in part because he misread his own party’s antipathy to the tax increase he had promised not to enact.
The current crisis, however, presents a totally different set of dynamics. While politics always influences decision-making, it would seem that health, science, and facts should convince a President to act responsibly. For President Trump it is always his definition of reality and not necessarily the truth. He is unable to accept advice that is contrary to his own perception of what is his own best political interests. In addition, the President continues to blame others for his own malfeasance. Trump took a medical crisis that began in China and converted it into an ill-managed unnecessary health, economic, and political disaster for the United States. For President Trump it is always someone else’s fault that the country is suffering and never something for which the President facing a crisis must accept responsibility.