Failed presidents can surprise us. Herbert Hoover, a Republican ousted by voters for his mishandling of the Great Depression, later became an indispensable ally to Democrat Harry Truman in addressing hunger in Europe after World War II. Jimmy Carter’s humanitarian work built a far more impressive legacy for him as an ex-president than president. George H.W. Bush joined forces with the man who denied him a second term, Bill Clinton, to bring aid to victims of natural disasters around the world, forming a close if ironic friendship along the way.
President Donald Trump has an opportunity for such a redemption, if he can look past his own worst demons to see it. Imagine if Trump — currently destined to take a beating in the history books over his handling of the coronavirus — spent the final weeks of his presidency, and beyond, providing the kind of national pandemic leadership America desperately needs.
Trump’s leadership so far has been catastrophic except for the crash vaccine-development program he spearheaded. He has downplayed the pandemic, failed to coordinate national and state responses, and suggested the U.S. should test less so its caseload looks smaller. He has encouraged his base to spurn masks at his crowded rallies, with deadly results. He has scorned expertise and elevated ineffective or dangerous quackery. Short of canceling the vaccine program, it’s hard to imagine how he could’ve been more counterproductive if he’d tried.
Reporting from inside the White House indicates Trump has completely checked out on the pandemic, obsessing instead over trying to reverse his irreversible loss in the Nov. 3 election. The pandemic didn’t magically “disappear” after the election as GOP leaders predicted. In fact, it’s raging out of control in much of the country, with Missouri and Illinois at the epicenter.
What if Trump were to announce he instead plans to use every remaining hour of his presidency to help guide America out of this morass? He could encourage social distancing, lead a national testing-and-tracing campaign, lay groundwork for widely and fairly distributing vaccines, and move Senate Republicans off their obstinance to approve another relief package of the scale needed to get Americans through this. He could make masks as ubiquitous as MAGA hats among his fans.
We’re not so naïve as to suggest Trump might be moved by the rising death toll to put the needs of the nation above his own self interests, but such a turn very well could be self-serving. If, as some are reporting, Trump really is pondering a 2024 presidential run, his best interests lie in being able to point to some wisp of success in addressing the nation’s worst public-health crisis in a century. To borrow a line from Trump himself, what the hell does he have to lose?
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