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A member of the Secret Service stands wearing a surgical mask as President Trump arrives for a news conference at the White House on May 11.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

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We don’t have a president, or a plan

60 days into the coronavirus crisis, the White House does not have a plan, a framework, a philosophy, or a goal.

Here’s the truth: Lockdown is economically ruinous, and America can’t sustain it from now until a vaccine. And you don’t have to take it from me. “You can’t be in lockdown for 18 months,” says Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. “We’ll destroy society as we know it, and we don’t know what we’ll accomplish with it.”

But this is also the truth: Reopening without a way to control the coronavirus will be lethal to both human life and economic growth, as an escalating death toll will force states back into lockdown. “We can’t just let the virus go,” Osterholm says. “Lots of people will die and it’ll shut down our health system, not just for Covid patients, but for anyone with a health problem.

“What we need,” he continues, “is a plan.”

It is shocking. More than 60 days after President Trump declared a national emergency over the novel coronavirus, there is still no clear national plan for what comes next. “The lockdown is not meant to be a permanent state of affairs; it’s intended to be a giant pause button that buys you time to get ready for the next phase,” Jeremy Konyndyk, of the Center for Global Development think tank, says.

But the Trump administration wasted the pause. Over the past two months, the US should have built the testing, contact tracing, and quarantine infrastructure necessary to safely end lockdown and transition back to normalcy — as many of its peer countries did. Instead, Trump has substituted showmanship for action, playing the president on TV but refusing to do the actual job. He has both dominated the airwaves and abdicated his duties. As a result, America’s progress against the coronavirus has stalled, even as the lockdown has driven the economy into crisis.

I am more sympathetic than some to the protesters, and others, who want to see states reopen, who believe the cost of lockdown overwhelms the apparent benefits. The economic agony is real, and they have been given no way to imagine its end, no clear understanding of the purpose behind their sacrifice. But the awful choice they feel we face — between endless lockdown or reckless reopening — needs to be understood for what it is: the failure of our political leaders to create a safer, middle path.

“What we want to avoid in the reopening process is creating the conditions that led to us having to stay home in the first place,” writes Caitlin Rivers of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. That was the Trump administration’s job — either they needed to do it or they needed to support and empower the states to do it.

They have failed. It is the most profound and complete failure of presidential leadership in modern history.

There is no plan

We are used to policy debates revolving around whether the administration has chosen the right or wrong plan. You could imagine that being the case here.

There are, at this point, a slew of reopening plans from think tanks and academics, economists and epidemiologists, liberals and conservatives. They differ in important, controversial ways. There are proposals that go all-in on mass testing. There are others that imagine a vast architecture of digital surveillance. Some rely on states; others emphasize the federal role. And within the plans, details worth debating abound: What level of risk is acceptable? How should recommendations vary between dense cities and rural areas? Who counts as an essential worker? How do we prevent mass unemployment? What is technologically possible?

The Trump administration could have chosen any of these plans or produced its own. But it didn’t. The closest it has come is a set of guidelines for states to consult when reopening. You can read them yourself at the White House’s “Opening America” landing page. The guidelines are not quite a plan, but they are at least a framework: They call for states to reopen when caseloads have fallen for 14 days, when hospitals can test all health care workers continually, when contact tracing architecture is up and running.

President Trump, however, shows neither familiarity with nor support for his own guidelines. He routinely calls on states to reopen though they have not met the criteria his administration suggests. For instance, his series of tweets calling on right-wing protesters to “LIBERATE!” Michigan, Virginia, and Minnesota from stay-at-home orders contradicted his administration’s guidance and created a distraction for state officials trying to manage a crisis.

Americans don’t have a functional president, but we have someone playing a dysfunctional president on TV, and he’s keeping other leaders from successfully doing their jobs.

This is not federalism

Some of Trump’s allies have tried to frame the president’s policy response — or lack thereof — as a principled commitment to small-government conservatism. “He has given pride of place to federalism and private enterprise — lauding the patriotism and proficiency of our fantastic governors and mayors, our incredible business leaders and genius companies,” wrote Hudson’s Christopher DeMuth in the Wall Street Journal.

This is creative but unconvincing. Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics has put together a detailed road map advocating for a federalist approach and showing how one might work. If states are to take the lead, they argue, the federal government has to support them in three ways: coordinate the supply chain so states don’t end up in a ruinous bidding war against each other, issue the debt necessary to backstop state and local spending as revenues collapse, and deploy the federal government’s vast scientific resources to ensure the best available evidence is being processed and disseminated to the states quickly and clearly.

America does not, in fact, lead the world in testing.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

But none of that is happening now. Instead, the authors write, “today disharmony reigns, as states compete for the supplies and personnel necessary to meet the exigencies of the moment.” Diplomatically, they omit any discussion of the president’s repeated efforts to foment political unrest against the governors he dislikes.

Trump’s approach to state needs has been transactional, not philosophical. He has been explicit in his belief that his administration should only engage with the governors that have been sufficiently politically supportive of him. At a press conference, Trump said he told Vice President Mike Pence, “don’t call the governor of Washington. You’re wasting your time with him. Don’t call the woman in Michigan.’” In this, as in so much else, the Trump administration is maneuvering around the president’s grudges and impulses.

States, too, are having to maneuver around the Trump administration to secure their response. In a remarkable admission, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, told the Washington Post that after purchasing 500,000 tests from South Korea, he made sure the plane bearing the tests landed under the protection of state troopers because he feared the federal government would take for itself the tests he had fought to procure. The move reportedly enraged Trump, who “saw Maryland’s deal with South Korea as a bid to embarrass the president.”

To state the obvious: This is not a president who believes in federalism.

Forget a plan. There isn’t even a goal.

It is, in truth, incoherence all the way down. And I do mean all the way.

As my colleague Matthew Yglesias has argued, the White House — and thus the country — has not even chosen a goal. The Trump administration has never decided whether the aim is “mitigation,” in which we slow the virus’s spread so the health system doesn’t get overwhelmed, or “suppression,” in which we try to eradicate the virus so as to save lives. It is possible, as Thomas Friedman writes, that the US is actually pursuing neither goal; instead, officials are following Sweden’s laissez-faire approach to the virus, and Trump “just hasn’t told the country or his coronavirus task force or maybe even himself.”

This, then, is the state of things: The White House does not have a plan, it does not have a framework, it does not have a philosophy, and it does not have a goal. That is not because these things are impossible. At this point, there are dozens of plans floating around and dozens of governments offering models it could choose from. Germany’s response has been a success, and I’m sure officials would share the lessons they’ve learned. In South Korea, professional baseball is restarting, and in Taiwan, there have been about a dozen new Covid-19 cases in the month of May so far.

It is not that the president is doing the wrong thing — he is doing basically nothing. But he has combined a substantive passivity with a showman’s desire to dominate the narrative and a political street fighter’s obsession with settling scores, so he is making the job of governors and mayors harder, neither giving them what they need to beat the virus nor leaving them to make their own decisions free from his interference and criticism.

The result, as David Wallace-Wells writes at New York magazine, is that “the country has accomplished essentially none of the necessary preparatory work required to safely begin to reopen and return to some semblance of normal life.”

Americans have made tremendous sacrifices to buy their government time, and that time has been wasted. That is why we are left with an increasingly polarized, and polarizing, debate between endless lockdowns and reckless reopening: The government has failed to do what functional governments in other countries have done and create a better option.

“It’s like the Lewis Carroll line, ‘If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there,’” Osterholm says. “Well, I don’t know where we’re going.”

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