The public debate over Trump’s vaccine strategy has typically focused on his efforts to corrupt the vaccine approval process and the ways this will backfire by making it less likely that voters will believe him if he does go through with such an announcement.
But there’s a more fundamental reason this will likely fail for Trump. It’s this: Whenever a vaccine is introduced, a long and complex process will follow that will require sustained, engaged, non-megalomaniacal presidential leadership, all conducted in the national interest, a concept Trump cannot begin to fathom.
In short, even if Trump were to get public credit for an imminent vaccine, it’s likely the public would not trust him to manage what comes next.
Trump’s embrace of miracle cures
Trump’s vaccine strategy rests on spinning illusions. His own health experts predict that a vaccine won’t be widely available until mid-2021 at best. But in dangling Election Day as a rough target for an initial rollout, Trump is trying to create the impression of imminence. Reelect him and we’ll promptly get a vaccine, and he’ll complete his spectacular routing of the virus that he has already mostly crushed.
But Trump’s problem is that he has long obsessed publicly over miracle cures. Whether it’s hawking hydroxychloroquine like yet another two-bit Trump scam, or vowing the virus will go away in “warmer” weather, or literally claiming it will vanish “like a miracle,” Trump has promised for months that this or that will make it disappear, even as he continues dismissing it as largely defeated by his towering leadership.
Many voters will likely see any vaccine announcement through this prism. He will again be promising an insta-victory over the virus, and many will understand that this actually reflects badly on his fitness to manage the process that must follow.
‘No fairy-tale ending’
First of all, even once we get a vaccine, we’ll still need to use all sorts of other techniques to limit the virus’s spread, according to Tom Frieden, a physician and former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“There’s no fairy-tale ending to this pandemic,” Frieden told me. “We’re going to be dealing with it for a long time, even if we have a vaccine.”
Frieden added that even a safe and effective vaccine “is not going to make the virus disappear,” noting that “we’re still going to have cases and clusters,” and “we’re still going to need to mask and contact-trace.”
Frieden stressed that these challenges are all the more likely precisely because we don’t know a lot about how to handle the vaccination for something like covid-19.
“There are still a huge number of unknowns,” Frieden told me. “We don’t know if the vaccine is going to work. We don’t know if it’s safe. We don’t know which vaccine will work better than the other. We don’t know which groups will be protected.”
The next president will need to oversee “a coordinated national process for rolling out the vaccine,” Frieden said, adding that billions of federal dollars will have to be made available to state and local governments to plan their end of this process, “and it’s not there.”
Then there’s the need to distribute the vaccine. Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, tells me this will entail a “massive and very complex logistical and production operation to get that vaccine in sufficient scale into people’s arms.”
This will require the next president to “work with the private sector in an effective way to incentivize the production of that vaccine,” Konyndyk continued, while showing an understanding of how supply chains can produce “all the constituent materials you need to get this vaccine into distribution.”
Once a pitchman, always a pitchman
All these complexities will also have to be communicated to a public that’s already deeply skeptical of Trump’s intentions on this front. Indeed, the very fact that he continues treating the vaccine like a pending cure-all miracle itself betrays the traits that will likely lead countless Americans not to trust him to handle this rollout.
“He’s always just trying to make the sale,” Konyndyk told me, citing Trump’s real estate past. “He’s not about solving a complex problem. He just wants to get you to sign on the dotted line.”
Finally, as economic historian Adam Tooze points out, the development of a vaccine will raise a host of global challenges in terms of coordinating intra-governmental and multinational pharmaceutical cooperation, and distributing it in poor and developing countries. The United States should play an active role. But Trump is snubbing the World Health Organization, which suggests more leadership abdication ahead.
Trump continues to undermine the possibilities of international cooperation. He continues to mock the mask-wearing and social distancing we’ll need to keep going even after we get a vaccine.
He has long told the states (which must be equipped for its rollout) to fend for themselves in getting medical equipment. He has screamed at governors in ALL-CAPS TWEETS to reopen their states despite public health needs.
And he refused for months to sufficiently work with the private sector to help marshal supply chains in service of a serious national response — yet he’ll have to interact with it effectively to get the vaccine distributed.
Why would voters trust Trump to handle such a complex and consequential series of processes going forward, after all we’ve been through?
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