Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The Weakest Modern Presidency Faces a Pandemic From the Couch

For three years now, political scientists Jonathan Bernstein and Matt Glassman have been arguing that Donald Trump is a historically weak president—probably the weakest of the modern (post-FDR) presidents. This is a contrarian view in some respects. Trump dominates the day-to-day media coverage of politics like no other figure in memory, and even many of his harshest critics often describe him as ruthlessly wielding the power of his office.

But I suspect that this argument will become more popular over time, especially once Trump departs the presidency and is no longer the constant obsession of the political world. Even prior to the current emergency, Trump had rarely been invested in the substantive responsibilities of his office and had never been able to attract sustained popular support for himself or his policies. He has presided over an executive branch whose administrative and political capacity has been constrained by mismanagement, infighting, and a cast of substandard subordinates serving alongside an array of temporary appointees and outright vacancies. While other presidents learned on the job from early mistakes, Trump has seemed incapable of significant growth or adaptation.

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed this weakness to public view like no previous event. Other than signing economic aid legislation for citizens and businesses—initiatives that were chiefly negotiated by Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and congressional Democrats with little personal involvement by the president—Trump does not appear to be leading an ambitious national response to the epidemic. Governors and other state officials complain of insufficient federal assistance (and even active federal interference). According to recent reporting, Trump is unengaged with the substance of his administration's COVID mitigation efforts: his discursive appearances at task force meetings reveal a limited understanding of relevant subjects when he attends at all, and he spends much of the workday watching cable television.

Trump has angrily disputed these accounts, suggesting that he may be the hardest-working president in history. But the amount of time that he has visibly devoted to complaining on Twitter or holding extended press briefings is evidence enough of where his attention has been directed. Though they were initially assumed to be politically beneficial, the president's daily briefings have only turned out to advertise his limitations, impressing nobody who wasn't already a supporter. It's thus understandable that Trump's post-COVID bump in job approval was both comparatively modest and unusually short-lived.

Unlike the governors and mayors who are earning public support across party lines for their handling of the crisis, Trump seems incapable of understanding that projecting strength requires exhibiting intellectual command of the facts and toning down personal grievances. Rather than learning from experience, he repeats the same mistakes over and over: claiming that the virus will "just go away," touting unproven or nonsensical remedies, and making quickly-falsified predictions about how long the crisis will continue or how many Americans will die. And the president has repeatedly shifted responsibility for solving the problem from himself to state and local officials—quite a departure from the "I alone can fix it" rhetoric of the 2016 campaign.

The fundamental passivity of the president's response to COVID-19 is especially instructive given his normal preoccupation with projecting executive decisiveness, populist sympathies, and Type-A swagger. Trump's desire to comport to the ultimate "strong leader" archetype is indeed powerful, but not so powerful that it can overcome a limited interest in information-gathering, an inability to think strategically over the long term, a lack of mental focus on any subject other than himself, and a general absence of committed energy for the tasks of governing.

All of these traits were visible before COVID came along. But now the demands on this presidency have grown stronger while the president looks less and less comfortable in the job, unable even to mimic the seriousness of purpose that other elected officials have marshaled in the moment. He seems to be hoping that he will wake up one day and the virus will simply be gone—via miracle cure or act of providence—without the need for any dedication or sacrifice on his part. That's admittedly a relatable wish, but it's not how a strong president would act.