Mr. Trump says he feels like a “wartime president.” The most important thing he can do now is to manage the pandemic as if in wartime: put it in the hands of commanders who know how to fight it. The president needs to draw from the country’s rich and talented pool of seasoned experts. He should immediately put someone in charge of the ongoing first wave, which may yet last for many weeks, and he should name a second person to begin planning for the transition period that follows, an immensely complex task. Then he should get out of their way.
Mr. Trump cut off travel from China early on. But instead of taking advantage of the reprieve that might have given the country, he entered a state of denial – “I think it’s going to work out fine,” he said Feb. 10 — and failed to prepare. The result is shortages and bottlenecks of tests, masks and hospital beds, leaving the United States today in the sad situation of health-care workers wearing plastic garbage bags and construction goggles for protection. Mr. Trump then sensibly called for social distancing, a move that requires cooperation from everyone, but soon seemed to have second thoughts and impulsively declared Easter as a nice target date for a return to work. The most fundamental point of crisis communications — a clear, straightforward and credible message— has been sundered.
In the near term, New York should not be bidding against Louisiana for vital supplies. The federal government must bring order and efficiency out of this chaos, overcome shortages, kick-start production and ensure the safety of health-care workers. It also must communicate clearly to the American people — and to all 50 governors — why social distancing and school and business closings are essential to break the chains of virus transmission. If we lose faith, the virus wins.
When the infections abate, a restive country will want to restart the engines. Mr. Trump said in a letter to governors this past week he would separate counties into high, medium and low risk based on data about infections. This reflects a necessary strategy of stratification for a transition to normal. But to accomplish it requires far more precision than red-yellow-green traffic lights at each county line. It will demand widespread testing and surveillance capacity, which the United States currently lacks. Failure to begin planning now could lead to rolling, dangerous new outbreaks for months on end.
The nation and the world need leadership. The enormity of the pandemic emergency is too great to be resolved separately by 50 governors and 3,142 counties. Nor can the coronavirus be stopped by a president who moonwalks the truth and selfishly personalizes every transaction. Please, put commanders in charge of this war — a war we did not ask for but cannot afford to lose.