President Donald Trump urged Americans eight days ago to brace for the “toughest week” of the coronavirus pandemic — but for Trump himself, the week ahead may well be tougher.
That’s because, even as the death toll keeps rising, so have signs that social distancing restrictions have begun tempering the crisis. Good news makes it harder to hold the line on those restrictions as the outcome of America’s war against coronavirus remains uncertain.
That paradox has produced intense cross-pressures inside the White House. Business interests, economic advisers and Republican conservatives seek an end to the shutdown that has halted normal life and thrown 16 million Americans out of work; public health authorities warn that moving prematurely risks a second tsunami of infection with escalating loss of life and deeper economic damage.
“Now is no time to back off,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease specialist, told CNN on Friday. “Now is the time to actually put your foot on the accelerator, because we’re going in the right direction.”
The lessons of the Great Depression
The scale of the crisis and the complex demands it places on the nation recall the predicament President Franklin D. Roosevelt confronted when he came into office in early 1933, during the Great Depression. He framed a challenge to America’s psyche as well as its economy, asserting “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
“We must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline,” Roosevelt declared in his first inaugural address. “Because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective.”
“That’s the crucial governance question we’re facing,” said Donald Kettl, a scholar at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. “The problem we have now is fear based on uncertainty.”
Governed himself by impulsivity, Trump has not shown the resolve to meet the moment. He waffled earlier about ending social distancing by Easter before yielding to Fauci by extending federal guidelines through April 30.
Now, with one leading epidemiological model projecting fewer deaths than before, Trump is wavering again with talk of a “big bang” economic restart next month. But that model assumes social distancing restrictions continue through the end of May. Easing up early could have lethal consequences.
In the meantime, Trump has turned daily coronavirus briefings into his personal political stage more than a venue for communicating evidence to help Americans cope with their doubts. In a pandemic involving a new infection for which the entire world lacks immunity, assessing the costs and benefits of loosening restrictions requires a continuous recalibration of risk.
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