President Donald Trump urged Americans eight days ago to brace for the “toughest week” of the coronavirus pandemic — but for Trump himself, the week ahead may well be tougher.
That’s because, even as the death toll keeps rising, so have signs that social distancing restrictions have begun tempering the crisis. Good news makes it harder to hold the line on those restrictions as the outcome of America’s war against coronavirus remains uncertain.
That paradox has produced intense cross-pressures inside the White House. Business interests, economic advisers and Republican conservatives seek an end to the shutdown that has halted normal life and thrown 16 million Americans out of work; public health authorities warn that moving prematurely risks a second tsunami of infection with escalating loss of life and deeper economic damage.
“Now is no time to back off,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease specialist, told CNN on Friday. “Now is the time to actually put your foot on the accelerator, because we’re going in the right direction.”
The lessons of the Great Depression
The scale of the crisis and the complex demands it places on the nation recall the predicament President Franklin D. Roosevelt confronted when he came into office in early 1933, during the Great Depression. He framed a challenge to America’s psyche as well as its economy, asserting “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
“We must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline,” Roosevelt declared in his first inaugural address. “Because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective.”
“That’s the crucial governance question we’re facing,” said Donald Kettl, a scholar at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. “The problem we have now is fear based on uncertainty.”
Governed himself by impulsivity, Trump has not shown the resolve to meet the moment. He waffled earlier about ending social distancing by Easter before yielding to Fauci by extending federal guidelines through April 30.
Now, with one leading epidemiological model projecting fewer deaths than before, Trump is wavering again with talk of a “big bang” economic restart next month. But that model assumes social distancing restrictions continue through the end of May. Easing up early could have lethal consequences.
In the meantime, Trump has turned daily coronavirus briefings into his personal political stage more than a venue for communicating evidence to help Americans cope with their doubts. In a pandemic involving a new infection for which the entire world lacks immunity, assessing the costs and benefits of loosening restrictions requires a continuous recalibration of risk.
Governors of both parties have filled the void in their states. At the pandemic’s epicenter, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York this week emphasized discipline even as he conveyed improving news about hospitalizations and deaths.
“The trajectory is the trajectory we create by our actions,” Cuomo said on Friday. Other states like Maryland that have acted aggressively sit behind New York on the case-growth curve and haven’t hit their crisis peaks yet.
Mark McClellan, who ran the Food and Drug Administration under President George W. Bush, has joined Trump’s former FDA chief Scott Gottlieb in a group of health policy professionals helping Congress and the administration identify national objectives necessary for safely resuming social and economic activities. He holds out hope that Americans have grown alarmed enough to remain patient behind an approach centered not on any specific date but rather achievement of testing and treatment benchmarks.
“People are still pretty nervous,” says McClellan, who now directs a Duke University health policy center. “People are also going to remember just how bad things got.”
Deep divisions about when to return to old routines
A CNN poll last week showed most want to hold the line. Fully 80% fear the worst of the outbreak lies ahead; 60% express discomfort with resuming regular routines if current White House guidelines expire on April 30.
Yet underlying those figures lies a sharp partisan divide. More than twice as many Republicans (53%) say they could comfortably resume their regular routines as Democrats (23%).
Republican impatience, amplified by conservative media outlets, creates a feedback loop inhibiting the consistent national response the White House coronavirus task force calls necessary to roll back the threat. GOP elected officials, business executives and religious figures eager for church services cast coronavirus restrictions as unnecessarily “draconian,” as Attorney General William Barr put it last week.
By demurring so far on naming May 1 as the pivot point, Trump acknowledges the potential for backfire. Vice President Mike Pence has said that “we’re going to follow the data.”
Trump followed the data two weeks ago in declining to lift federal guidelines by Easter. Turning back intra-party pressure for larger national interests will be harder now, as improvement raises hopes, than when conditions were deteriorating.
“What people need is a clear message that’s the same no matter where they are,” Kettl says. “That is a leadership challenge that begins at the top.”