The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s failure of leadership makes a feeble economy and resurgent virus more likely

President Trump stops to talk to reporters as he walks to board Marine One and depart from the South Lawn at the White House on May 14.
President Trump stops to talk to reporters as he walks to board Marine One and depart from the South Lawn at the White House on May 14. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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There are times when nations must do unpopular and painful things — and those are the times when a country needs a leader. Ours has gone missing in action. Worse, President Trump is actually subverting leadership. The resulting vacuum of power feeds confusion and chaos, as mayors, governors, members of Congress, doctors and scientists all strive to fill the vacuum.

The job of a leader in a crisis — and the coronavirus pandemic is a genuine crisis, not just an outburst of alarmism — is to forge a consensus that enables a society to deal with the crisis. This is hard. It requires the leader to explain things that are usually difficult to explain. And explanation is not enough. People must be persuaded to do or accept things that they oppose or don’t support.

As often as not, this involves income losses — higher taxes or lower government benefits — and shifts in long-held beliefs and values. To cite a few examples of how difficult it is to reach a consensus: (1) global warming — reducing greenhouse gases would almost certainly require much higher prices on fossil fuels; (2) abortion — either more or less access to procedures would infuriate the losers; and (3) gun regulation — the same.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

All have tried to be recognized as full-blown crises; all have failed. The point here is not to argue for one position or the other. It is to recognize the difficulty of creating consensus in democratic societies. It’s especially hard when the nation’s nominal leader spurns the leader’s traditional role — that’s what Trump has done. A true leader would have used the bully pulpit to mobilize public opinion to accept changes that we don’t like but that can’t be avoided.

Instead, Trump practices denial. He suggests the crisis isn’t as bad as it seems. The economy will come roaring back, and 2021 will be its best year ever.

This is happy talk. The unemployment rate of nearly 15 percent is the highest since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The White House, Congress and the Federal Reserve have already authorized programs worth about $9.5 trillion to prevent a total economic collapse, says the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group. (Of the total, about $3.7 trillion has been disbursed, the group’s study estimates.) There’s talk of another rescue package with a price tag measured in the trillions.

Is this the best we can do?

The debate we should be having — how best to adapt to new realities — is splintered. Of course, Trump is one player, but his political motives are so blatant (claim credit for good news and blame others for bad) that they are discounted by many. What’s left is a crowd of pundits, politicians, doctors and scientists: immunologist Anthony S. Fauci; Fed Chair Jerome H. Powell; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.); Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.); New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D); and CNN medical contributor Sanjay Gupta, to name a few.

The outlook is for more of the same. Retail sales have been crushed. They fell 16.4 percent in April compared with March. Furniture stores decreased 58.7 percent, clothing stores 78.8 percent.

Confidence is shot. The University of Michigan’s Index of Consumer Sentiment was down 26 points in May from a year earlier. Economist Richard Curtin, the survey’s longtime head, doubts there will be a quick rebound. “The current pandemic mood of consumers cannot be easily or quickly reversed,” he writes. “Moods are remarkably independent of conscious control. . . . Their strength and stability encourages consistency in behavior.”

Similarly, sales expectations for the next six months of the NFIB Small Business Optimism Index dropped to their lowest level in the index’s 46-year history in April. On the brighter side, many respondents felt the economy would rebound in six months.

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

We are a long way from a coherent policy that treats both the economy and the coronavirus. How much of a gamble are we taking if we open up too much of the economy too soon? What are the costs for waiting too long? Have we passed a point of no return when we can’t control the virus and it can control us? What are the prospects for a workable vaccine?

By our masterful evasion of the obvious, will we end up with the worst of both worlds: a feeble economy and a resurgent virus?

Read more from Robert Samuelson’s archive.

Read more:

Max Boot: If Trump had been in charge during World War II, this column would be in German

Jennifer Rubin: Rick Bright’s testimony confirms our worst fears

Fareed Zakaria: Experts have jobs. They need to understand those who don’t.

Danielle Allen: We’ve wasted enough time. We must figure out how to reopen schools this fall.

Robert J. Samuelson: The sad death of the ‘hot’ economy