Some Unsolicited Advice for the White House

Donald Trump has fallen on hard times. His poll numbers are sagging in key swing states. People don’t believe what he’s saying about the pandemic. He explodes at bad polling news and threatened to sue his campaign manager. Senate Republicans are starting to panic that he’s going to bring them down in November. He feels mistreated by the public, the press — everyone. Even worse treatment than Lincoln, he said.

Well of course Trump is angry. Just a few months ago he was riding as high as the stock market. He had survived impeachment, Democrats were about to nominate Bernie, he had a massive war chest ready for a relentless negative campaign that was going to make ’16 look like a rom-com. Then the virus hit, the market crashed, tens of thousands died, the nation’s largest city endured a catastrophe, and up to one-third of the country stands to be thrown out of work. His political plans fell apart. 

Reports abound that Trump is scrambling for a solution, that he can’t accept the possibility that he could lose the election to Joe Biden. But nothing he’s doing seems to work. He wants to get the economy back to where it was but that can’t happen with the country sheltering in place, so he starts ordering people to get back out there. A bunch of Republican governors went along with it, but based on what we’re seeing in opinion polls a lot of people just aren’t ready to go out yet, and you can’t jump-start an economy without demand. Also, opening the economy didn’t make the virus go away and people who are listening to Trump risk getting themselves and others sick. There doesn’t appear to be a way out. No wonder he’s at a loss.

This is where I think I can help. 

There are three concurrent crises happening in this country. The first is a public health crisis brought on by Covid-19. The second is a financial crisis brought on by the public health crisis, because we stopped the economy when we sheltered in place. The third is a leadership crisis brought on when Trump failed to fight the public health crisis and in so doing guaranteed that the financial crisis would be severe. There was no avoiding the pandemic, but our current trajectory was not preordained. Early action, a plan for developing and distributing tests, proactive national shelter-in-place orders — all of these would have made the health impacts less severe, spared us much of the economic damage, and made it easier to re-open the economy sooner and more safely.

We are a strong country and we could weather any two of these three crises. But all three — that’s a lot to ask. We have to solve one of them before we can address the other two.

When faced with the health and economic crises, Trump fell back on what’s worked for him all his life. He believes so much in his ability to wish things away that he didn’t sweat the details. The disease and death and economic destruction – he thought he could sell it. Just say it’s going to magically get better. Tell everyone that things are great, that we’re the best country in the world when it comes to testing. Most of the country isn’t listening though. Senior citizens especially aren’t listening. The virus most certainly won’t listen. But Trump keeps selling. It’s all he knows. 

So my unsolicited advice to Donald Trump is: let’s solve the leadership crisis. Step back for a few minutes and look at how other presidents have handled emergencies. When they faced a crisis they asked questions and tried to understand what was wrong. They talked to experts. Took them seriously. Developed a plan. I’m not saying that you can’t take time to watch cable news and rage tweet, it’s just that some problems can’t be solved by winning the news cycle. I know this is well out of your comfort zone, but just picture this for a second. What if you had acted quickly on the advice of the infectious disease specialists and those crisis plans the Obama folks left you for dealing with a pandemic? What if you had rallied the country for the difficulties we were about to face? Leveled with everyone and were honest about the facts? Made widespread tests available, shut down the country early — before the number of cases got out of hand? Empathized with people? You could have been a leader. Because these are the kinds of things a leader does.

Think of where you would be now. Things would still be difficult but you would have a record to point to, not the insurmountable mess you can’t seem to make right. You might even be popular, like Andrew Cuomo and Mike DeWine and those other governors who are trying to work the problem. Instead, you lash out in fear that you’re going to be consumed politically by the virus and the economy. But here’s the most important thing: you should be. I know you don’t want the election to be a verdict on your mismanagement and incompetence, but what else can it be? Any president who enables the conditions we’re in now does not deserve a second term. Any president who makes the goal of a second term their top priority during a national crisis has no business holding the office. And any Senate Republican who’s worried that they’re going down with you, well, they’ll have a lot of time to look in the mirror after November.

You see, you don’t own the presidency. We do. The way you get to stay there is by putting the public’s needs first. Not just the public that voted for you. Everyone. There is such a thing as the national interest, and it may surprise you that it starts with protecting our health and well-being. I know it sounds simple but voters will reward you for doing your job and your job is looking out for us. It’s pretty remarkable that for someone who spent a lifetime in real estate you never understood this one foundational fact about holding on to your office. There is no deed to the White House. It’s a rental.