American leadership and the new normal

April 7, 2020 12:15 am

President Donald Trump. Photo courtesy Gage Skidmore.

When Donald Trump took office in 2017, Democrats everywhere pledged to not “normalize” his politics. Cries of “this is not normal” resounded through social media as the left mobilized to resist Trump’s attacks on health care access, the stripping of environmental protections, xenophobic immigration policies, and more.  

Now Trump’s feckless COVID-19 coronavirus response is challenging how we think about leadership. Each day, Trump assumes the White House podium, flanked by his coronavirus task force, and proceeds to sow confusion about the current crisis.

Sure, he lets some of the respected experts on the task force speak — most notably the prominent physician Dr. Anthony Fauci — but then Trump swiftly sets out to undermine their message. This leaves Americans uncertain about such crucial topics as the importance of social distancing, whether or not to wear a mask, what treatments may exist for COVID-19, and the prospects of developing a vaccination. 

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has taken a different approach. It has, of course, become fashionable to praise DeWine at this time, even for Democrats. The straight-talking DeWine has surrounded himself with talented, capable health experts, most notably Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton. In stark contrast to Trump, DeWine appears to be listening to his experts.

Yet, if you think about it, it’s also true that DeWine is not really doing anything extraordinary. In fact, he is doing precisely what anybody should expect from a capable governor during a pandemic, drawing on available evidence, filtering out noise, making hard choices, and delivering the truth to people.

This is not to take anything away from DeWine and his team. We should breathe a sigh of relief and be proud that we have a capable governor in office. But we should also not treat DeWine’s competence as exceptional merely because we are witnessing such shocking and unacceptable leadership failures in the White House.

Let me elaborate on just one critical difference between DeWine and Trump: their approach to social distancing and stay-at-home orders. One of the most difficult aspects of the COVID-19 coronavirus is that those who contract it can be asymptomatic for weeks. This has produced a situation where, without extensive testing, we are experiencing today the results of transmissions that occurred weeks ago.

This means that Ohio must take actions today that many Ohioans may think are unjustified or excessive precisely because they cannot yet see the coming storm. This is a hard political corner to be in, but DeWine and Acton have made the hard decisions again and again. Ohio is the beneficiary of these decisions, as the curve of COVID-19 cases appears to be flattening, which in turn bides time for Ohio’s health professionals to prepare for the looming coronavirus peak.

In contrast, when asked on April 4 why he had not issued a national stay-at-home order, Trump revealed that he didn’t understand the consequences of the lag between transmission and visible symptoms.

Pressed by a reporter about the situation in Utah, which is experiencing a spike in confirmed cases of COVID19 but still lacks a Stay at Home order, Trump explained, “It’s up to them. If I saw something wrong, if I saw a massive breakout, of which that’s not, I would come down very hard.”

The reporter didn’t receive an answer to his insightful follow-up: “Isn’t the key to this pandemic getting ahead of those numbers?” The situation is dramatized by the fact that, just the day before, Trump had signed a disaster declaration for Utah, making federal funds available to the state.

One would think that the issuance of federal funds for a disaster would be a good opportunity for leadership, to ask Utah to do its part to stop the spread of COVID-19 in their state. Trump, supposedly the savvy transactional deal maker, took a pass.

Readers may remember that state health officials, along with Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther, made the hard decision to close The Arnold Sports Festival to the public in early March. Though it seems quaint now, that decision drew a great deal of anger and seemed, even to those who had already been tracking the virus’s spread, to be an overreaction.

We were just learning about this novel virus at this time, but Ohio’s leaders were paying attention to available data. As Acton noted recently, “On the front end of a pandemic, you look a little bit like an alarmist. You look a little bit like a Chicken Little — the sky is falling. On the back end of the pandemic, you didn’t do enough.”

Ohio is erring on the side of doing too much, for which we should all be grateful.

Trump’s inattention to the COVID-19 pandemic takes on an additionally tragic dimension when one considers that the Obama administration briefed Trump’s transition team on the dangers of coming pandemics, or that Trump’s own director of medical and biodefense preparedness echoed the dangers of pandemic in 2018 — just before Trump disbanded the response team.

The inability to see what was coming has been compounded by the response. Trump’s failure to deploy the Strategic National Stockpile of ventilators and personal protective equipment is well known. The shuttering of the National Security Council’s Pandemic Response Team, but also the hesitation to respond decisively to the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, will undoubtedly be remembered as fateful decisions on Trump’s part. While the pandemic wasn’t his doing, his leadership failures have increased the amount suffering and death that our nation is facing. 

When Donald J. Trump delivered his inaugural address on January 20, 2017, he declared, “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”

It turns out that it was only just getting started.

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Dan Skinner
Dan Skinner

Dan Skinner is Associate Professor of Health Policy at Ohio University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, located on the Dublin campus. He is the host of Prognosis Ohio, a health care podcast produced in collaboration with WCBE, a Central Ohio NPR affiliate. Follow Dan at @danielrskinner.