Accountability, leadership become politics’ X factors in the time of coronavirus

March 16, 2020 12:02 am

President Donald J. Trump listens as Dr. Debbie Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, speaks at a news conference where Trump announced a national emergency to further combat the coronavirus outbreak on Friday, March 13, 2020, in the Rose Garden of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

The second week of March crashed upon an unsuspecting America with a force that only a precious and dwindling handful of Americans can appreciate.

In a twinkling, life as we knew it ended, swept away in a global tsunami of panic over COVID-19, a virus that science doesn’t fully understand and the United States can’t track or quantify. Amid pervasive fear and social chaos, markets crashed hard enough to end an 11-year bull market. Rather than gathering close, as Americans have in times of trouble from Pearl Harbor to 9/11, we’re compelled to disperse and isolate ourselves at home — unmoored from traditional community refuges like schools and houses of worship.

Workplaces large and small, schools and colleges sent their employees and students home with orders to telecommute if possible while others go without paychecks. Flights overseas are grounded and ocean liners docked indefinitely. Major sports leagues suspended play; no March Madness and no 2020 college basketball champion. Theaters on the Great White Way are dark. Sanctuaries were empty and silent with ministers streaming sermons via social media. Supermarket shelves are picked bare of staples like cleaning supplies, bread and toilet paper. And the “happiest place on Earth,” Disney’s theme parks, are locked until further notice.

Markets responded violently. On Thursday, hours after an Oval Office address that President Donald Trump hoped would reassure Americans and quell rattled markets, the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 10 percent of its value in a 2,300-point plunge, the worst single-day dive since 1987. Retirement funds and investments melted like a Popsicle in August. A Friday rally made up some losses but could not resuscitate the bull market, and Congress sought to enact an emergency aid package.

The few Americans who have seen their world so profoundly changed as it was last week are well into their 90s – the last of what Tom Brokaw rightly called “The Greatest Generation.” These children of the Great Depression endured social upheaval, poverty and privations, including food and fuel rationing, far more dire than the 2008 recession.

Bit by bit, they restored the country’s wrecked financial foundation and, in the middle of it all, they vanquished murderous fascist tyranny in World War II. Postwar, under Democratic and Republican leaders, that same generation created in America the greatest standard of living the planet had ever known, began to reverse the evil of slavery-rooted inequality, landed humans on the moon and won the Cold War as Soviet communism collapsed from within.

Is this pandemic a harbinger of times as challenging as those? Let’s hope not. But much of that depends on how U.S. leadership handles the crisis now before it.

Bottom line: We are a country unaccustomed to this magnitude of adversity. We will soon see whether Americans of the early 21st century can muster the discipline, resolve and faith of their forebears in the early 20th century.

Society will not rise to its highest purpose without being led there, and that is what the next 7½ months is all about. Will the nation recognize and elect a leader who can articulate a path to a better future, form it into an actionable plan and inspire Americans to collectively execute it during difficult times?

The economic collapse that began in the final week of October 1929 and left the nation’s banks and markets in ruins only deepened under Herbert Hoover’s detached presidency. Three years later, Franklin Roosevelt rallied dispirited Americans starting with his Inaugural Address assurance that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The New Deal — FDR’s detailed, multi-pronged big-government blueprint to create jobs and restore the country’s broken spirit — commenced a halting, incremental six-year recovery that didn’t fully take hold until 1939 as U.S. industry ramped up for World War II.

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization officially declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic. Trump followed with his hastily arranged prime time speech. In it, he blindsided world leaders and Congress with a ban on travel and trade with select European countries and, contrary to fact, asserted that testing for a “foreign virus” was readily available to all nationwide.

Senior administration officials immediately began walking back his travel edict, noting that it did not apply to cargo and that Americans abroad could come home. In the case of his accessible testing claim, public health officials nationwide directly contradicted him. Markets cratered. Within minutes of Thursday’s opening bell, trading on the New York Stock Exchange was automatically halted by a computerized circuit breaker engineered to stanch panic selloffs. On Capitol Hill, Trump’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, briefed lawmakers, and Democrats and Republicans emerged from the meeting voicing dismay that what they had just heard differed so dramatically from the president’s own claims.

On Friday, as the market recovered, Trump spoke again, declaring a national emergency that freed up billions of federal dollars to make testing and care more widely available. Several governors – including Virginia’s Ralph Northam, a doctor by training – had already declared emergencies in their states. He also disavowed any responsibility for the federal government’s disarray in the face of the crisis.

The United States, despite nearly two months of lead time, failed to devise and deploy a nationwide testing and triage regimen, depriving the medical community of the data it needs to determine the true extent of America’s community infections. As of Friday, only about 13,000 tests had been administered to suspected U.S. coronavirus patients. By comparison, South Korea tests nearly that many every day.

The past week has already refocused the politics of 2020. What has arguably been the worst week in Trump’s presidency has wounded him in ways that none of his other scandals has, including the Mueller investigation, felony convictions of close associates and his impeachment. That’s because Trump was undone by the only person capable of it: himself, in his own unfiltered words and actions.

The coronavirus is an uncaring adversary, impervious to his tweeted harangues. The smallest of biological organisms, it just does what it does — sickening people with impunity regardless of political leanings, race or nationality, social station or religion. It mocks the administration simply by running its course. And, worst of all for an incumbent running on his stewardship of a robust economy, his own actions have aggravated market declines.

Both of his would-be Democratic rivals, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, saw the opening and sought to exploit it. Each held Thursday news conferences, trying to look reasoned, seasoned and “presidential” as they pitched plans to expedite universal testing, care for those infected and soften the financial blow from job disruptions.

What lies ahead will inform the vast and decisive swath of undecided and independent voters, not only in November but likely well beyond. Hopefully, hard-learned insights will prevail over partisan and foreign disinformation efforts. Maybe a wiser electorate will ask hard and relevant questions of all who aspire to leadership and hold them to account for their answers.

Perhaps, at last, science and humility will matter again.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]