The coronavirus guarantees that for the foreseeable future President Trump will be right where he likes to be: front and center, with the spotlight squarely on him. His likely Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, is an afterthought as the nation grapples with a challenge to public health and the devastating fallout that comes from shutting down large portions of the economy and ordering millions of people to stay home under almost all circumstances as has been done in California, New York and other hard-hit states.
This presents a rare opportunity for the president, whatever you think of him: He can do well by doing good because his political interests perfectly align with what’s right for the country, and by that I mean the whole country and not just his supporters and potential supporters.
While his opponents try and figure out how to keep their campaigns energized under these highly unusual circumstances, the president can demonstrate leadership under duress. After early delays in responding to the emerging threat from the virus, for which he has come in for substantial criticism, Mr. Trump has recently taken a stronger stance, invoking the Defense Production Act, passed during the Korean War, and calling himself a wartime president. Even Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York said that he and Mr. Trump were “fighting the same war” and were “in the same trench,” while also describing the president as “very energetic” and “very creative.”
But there’s still much to be done, and how the president leads will determine both his political fate and the fate of the nation. His future is very much in his own hands.
Doctors and other health care workers in the United States have run short of critical supplies like masks and gowns, meant to protect them from contracting and spreading infection. In some areas the shortages are so bad that they have taken to social media to ask for help. This is absurd. While American hospitals and doctors are concerned about shortages, China is supplying virus-stricken Italy with critical supplies, and the Chinese billionaire Jack Ma of Ali Baba has sent a million masks and 500,000 coronavirus test kits to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is an act of humanitarian graciousness and also a poignant display of power. It humiliates the United States and Europe by exposing our inability to produce the vital health care supplies necessary to treat our people in times of crisis.
It turns out that the soft power associated with the financialization of the economy — the shift away from manufacturing and the ascendancy of banking and finance — is actually a weakness when the real world of deadly pathogens intervenes and requires the hard power of lifesaving medicines, protective masks and ventilators. Yes, the outbreak of the coronavirus has exposed how ill-prepared we are to deal with the threat of pathogens, but that gives the president both the opportunity and the responsibility to lead the nation in building that capacity.
Take the C.D.C., for example. It is true that the agency botched both the tests and the testing regime in February. That’s in the past. I don’t believe that political judgment will be rendered on that if the president is seen to have successfully handled the crisis as a whole. Under ordinary circumstances, no one expects a president to be in minute by minute control of the C.D.C.’s testing regime. But when a weakness is exposed by a crisis, people do have a right to expect the president to act decisively to correct it and to strengthen the system so that it doesn’t happen again.
Mr. Trump would serve the nation well by developing a comprehensive means of addressing viral outbreaks. What his administration is doing now is necessarily the real-time, beta version of that plan. Officials should be monitoring both successes and failures, and change tactics quickly when necessary. That can be broken into three parts.
First, create institutional capacity and responsibility. This could be within a reformed C.D.C. The agency began life in 1942 as the Office of National Defense Malaria Control Activities. It’s time to reinforce the agency’s role in actively defending the nation from deadly pathogens. This will require more money, but however much that will be is a pittance compared with what is being spent dealing with the coronavirus. But there must be a single hierarchy with both authority and responsibility for identifying pathogenic threats, marshaling and administering the resources to deal with them, and coordinating responses with other nations.
Second, develop domestic manufacturing capacity. It is imperative that the United States identify critical resources that must be manufactured, along with their component parts, domestically. Key pharmaceuticals and other health care equipment are an obvious place to start. These are strategic necessities akin to the Department of Defense ensuring that essential military gear is made here. Mr. Trump took the right first step by invoking the Defense Production Act. Now he must use it. Longer term, the federal government must pass “buy American” legislation for a wide range of products. Using preferences won’t do; everyone knows how to get around them. The federal government must also be prepared to be the buyer of last resort that keeps manufacturing of important products with low profit margins viable in the United States. We must treat antibiotics, vaccines, masks and other medical items as though they are vital to our national security, because they are.
Third, there must be a science and technology initiative directed at developing new means of identifying pathogens and other public health risks, testing for them, containing them, treating them and, ideally, curing them. Increasing the capacity of our health care system to handle pandemics is essential. It will save lives and reduce the need for the widespread shutdowns and quarantines we’re now experiencing and will thus prevent the accompanying economic destruction that on its own will cause much suffering. Focused efforts that lead to new scientific discoveries could not only prevent or dramatically limit future outbreaks but could also create a virtuous cycle of discovery and development that makes the country more secure and more prosperous.
If Mr. Trump does these things, he will see the nation through a major crisis, put his naysayers to shame and create a lasting institutional legacy that will make the nation more secure in the future. What’s more, it would enable the United States to help friends in need. For all the claims that Mr. Trump’s America First foreign policy degraded America’s leading position in the world, his critics seem to have forgotten that exporting our manufacturing base to China also meant abandoning America’s ability to lead in many situations like this one. America wasn’t the country shipping crucial supplies to Italy because we couldn’t. We don’t even have enough to meet our own needs. That is a far more dangerous surrender of American leadership than is wanting to reduce America’s involvement in military conflicts abroad.
The world looks to America for leadership, but that leadership comes with responsibilities. We could send plenty of management consultants and bankers to hard-hit Bergamo, but it wouldn’t help. There are plenty in New York, and it’s not helping there either. Sending ventilators and masks and pharmaceuticals would help, but we don’t have that ability.
If the president prepares a plan to build the domestic capacity to quickly and effectively address future public health threats, Americans will be more secure, the world can have confidence in American leadership in times of crisis and Mr. Trump will have earned the support of American voters in November. This will require the president to buck some conventional Republican sentiment about the proper use of government power. But the true spirit of conservatism recognizes that there is no more legitimate use of that power than to protect American lives. Now is his chance to do just that.
Christopher Buskirk (@thechrisbuskirk) is the editor and publisher of the journal American Greatness and a contributing opinion writer.
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