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Nervous public seeks leadership but turns to states’ governors

jules witcover

WASHINGTON — As President Trump has transitioned from denying the severity of the coronavirus crisis to bragging about his tardy acknowledgment of it, much of the nation has turned to state and local officials to get straight talk and sound advice.

It is coming particularly from Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York in nationally televised reports on what he is doing in badly hit New York City and state. He is joined by Mayor Bill DeBlasio and the governors of California and Illinois, all bearing the brunt of the deadly pandemic. All have ordered their citizens to shelter in place through the peak of its peril and otherwise have stepped up to mitigate the damage he has inflicted on essential public confidence.

In response, the president has cast himself as “a wartime president” fighting an invisible enemy, while also making war on what he continues to call an “enemy of the people” — the American media.

As if biting the hand that feeds him, Trump on a daily basis takes to television and social media to praise himself and lie about his adversaries, as in his recent assaults on Democrats striving to shape a hugely costly federal response to meet the needs of working people as well as of their hard-hit employers.

In league with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he has cast them as obstructionists in rejecting clearly partisan early versions of the relief bill, which Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said would have created a “slush fund” for giant corporate interests.

Trump had said at first he would be invoking the Defense Production Act, under which he could order private manufacturing firms to refit and turn out desperately needed hospital devices and protective equipment for medical workers. However, he declined to do so, citing the nation’s free enterprise system that has been so good to him as a private citizen. “We’re a country not based on nationalizing our businesses,” he said. He called the notion “not a good concept,” adding “we have the threat of doing it if we need it.”

Instead, he praised domestic automakers like Ford, General Motors and Tesla for acting on their own, tweeting they “are being given the go-ahead to make ventilators and other metal products, FAST! … Go for it, auto execs, let’s see how good you are!”

In all this, it seemed Trump was now aware of the way leading governors and other local officials were moving on their own in the crisis, and he was hardly overjoyed by their independent actions. Even his prospective Democratic opponent in the approaching presidential election, Joe Biden, weighed in with a statement. “Mr. President,” he wrote, “stop lying and start acting. Use the full extent of your authorities, now, to ensure that we are producing all essential goods and delivering them where they need to go.”

Instead, his latest contribution is to go against all expert medical counsel by predicting an early return to business as usual, and an end to the containment strategy of social distancing. “America will again and soon be open for business, very soon,” he said Monday. “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself,” with his eye no doubt fastened on the stock market.

There certainly will be a lot more said in the presidential campaign about Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis as he seeks to overcome this unexpected intrusion into his plans for re-election in November. Barring an unforeseen swift and positive resolution, it likely will be a major hurdle for him, reinforcing a growing public perception that he finds himself in a job much more demanding of his talents as a self-defined “very stable genius.”

Editor’s note: Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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