The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump has made a mess of national security. Biden must show he can do better.

Former vice president Joe Biden in Philadelphia on March 10.
Former vice president Joe Biden in Philadelphia on March 10. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

As yet, it is a disease without a name. But the symptoms are obvious. The patient begins by playing down a gathering national disaster — say a pandemic. The nation’s response to the crisis proves to be partially effective, avoiding the worst-case outcomes. The patient then takes this as an opportunity to complain that the threat was exaggerated all along.

Success in opposing a challenge is thus interpreted as evidence the challenge never existed.

Perhaps this should be known as the Ingraham illness — as in Laura Ingraham, who recently demanded “we want answers” because the casualty count from covid-19 is lower than initially predicted. I’m more inclined to diagnose bubonic Bennettism — for William Bennett, who has likened covid-19 to the flu, grumbled about national overreaction and claimed the global outbreak “is not a pandemic.” This, as the virus has infected more than 2 million people in at least 177 countries causing 138,000 deaths, with the United States leading the world in both the number of cases and fatalities. He has caught one of the more virulent strains of motivated reasoning.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

As education secretary and as head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Bennett often reminded us that liberals of great learning could be guilty of destructive silliness. Now he is demonstrating that the same is true of cerebral conservatives.

President Trump calls criticism of his coronavirus response "fake," yet cherry-picks news clips to make his case. He can't have it both ways, says Erik Wemple. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford / WP; Alex Brandon / AP/The Washington Post)

Ideology does not provide protection from this syndrome. It is the same type of reasoning that declares the war against terrorism to be an overreaction to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. On that day, terrorist operations costing $500,000 killed nearly 3,000 people and resulted in an estimated $3.3 trillion in economic damage. An attack with chemical or biological weapons could have multiplied these results. Under President George W. Bush, the United States undertook a global campaign against terrorist networks and financing that was costly but, on the whole, successful. The effort was continued by President Barack Obama — employing different terminology and more drone strikes — with continued effect. Yet some insist that a lack of attacks on the American homeland proves the aggressive prevention of those attacks unnecessary.

In reality, there is a series of asymmetrical threats that the United States needs to prepare against. They include terrorism and pandemic disease. They also include cyberaggression against U.S. democracy, criminal gangs of international reach, climate disruption and refugee flows that foster despair and radicalism. And there is the threat of nuclear proliferation. And the threat from an increasingly belligerent China.

We need U.S. leaders who can prevent mass casualties from deadly pathogens and chew gum at the same time. In the last presidential election, Americans chose a leader who has problems even with the second half of that challenge. President Trump only inhabits the performative present. He neither learns from the past nor anticipates the future. He values blind loyalty above foresight or expertise. He was unprepared for the coronavirus and will leave the country less prepared for every gathering threat that does not arrive on his watch.

We need U.S. leaders who won’t minimize dangers that don’t neatly fit their preconceptions. Leaders who take the world as it is, and plan for a world that could go wrong in a hundred horrible but predictable ways.

More than any other value or talent, Joe Biden must show preemptive competence on American security. I understand his current need to solidify support from his party’s left. I appreciate the appeal of his empathy and decency. But in light of the coronavirus, this is his one thing needful: to assure Americans that he and his White House team would protect the country from the full range of global dangers.

The Opinions section is looking for stories of how the coronavirus has affected people of all walks of life. Write to us.

Marc Thiessen

counterpointBiden is disgracing the institution of the prime-time presidential address

Now or soon, Biden should further reveal the depth and range of his defense and foreign policy advisers, chosen from both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations. (Of all the elements of the Bush administration, defense and foreign policy staffers are most likely to join a national unity team.) Biden should put them to work on a series of brilliantly boring policy addresses and white papers on emerging threats. And Biden should be actively persuading, through intermediaries, respected military and intelligence figures who served in the Trump administration to publicly support him. These endorsements could be announced to great effect around convention time, when the task turns to persuading independents and suburban Republicans.

When the accretions of the presidency are removed, national security, broadly defined, is the job. Trump has made a mess of it. Biden would do better. His task is to demonstrate it.

Read more from Michael Gerson’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Trump loves empty gestures. He’s averse to work.

Greg Sargent: Pathetic displays like these are all Trump has left

Jennifer Rubin: Ignore Trump’s tantrums. Focus on his incompetence.

Paul Waldman: Why Fox News and Republicans are promoting a social distancing backlash

Eugene Robinson: Trump refuses to lead a country in crisis

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: For people under 50, second booster doses are on hold while the Biden administration works to roll out shots specifically targeting the omicron subvariants this fall. Immunizations for children under 5 became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

For the latest news, sign up for our free newsletter.