December 7, 2021

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Trump’s Coronavirus Speech Was Not Especially Reassuring

(Bloomberg Opinion) —

Wow.

If there’s been a worse Oval Office address ever, I certainly can’t think of it. All of Donald Trump’s ineptness at the job of presidenting and his personal pathologies came together Wednesday night in a short, awful, counterproductive address to the nation.

At least he managed to avoid wearing a campaign hat. But this was bad.

Begin with the obvious: There’s absolutely no excuse for the White House to have to walk back not one, not two, but three policy elements in a short prepared speech. The biggest? The president declared a thorough trade boycott of Europe, only to call “backsies” soon after the speech was over. He also mischaracterized a new travel ban, and claimed that he had talked insurance companies into a deal that they quickly let everyone know never happened. Mistakes happen, sure. But while I’ll defend politicians who get the occasional fact wrong when they’re talking off the cuff, it’s a lot harder to justify this kind of thing when the president is reading a statement.

And it matters. A lot. One of the key things the White House wants to do when policy is going badly is to assure people that they can trust the president, and the government in general, to tell the truth. Getting stuff wrong undermines that, just as Trump’s frequent factually incorrect statements about the coronavirus prior to his Oval Office speech have made it harder for people to trust him and the government. It’s also useful if the government is thought of as competent; this kind of mistake doesn’t help at all.

Then there were all the things missing from the speech. The main one? Trump said nothing to help citizens understand the disruptions in their lives that have already begun and are accelerating almost hourly (so that only minutes after Trump finished, the NBA suspended its season). This is the kind of assurance that people want from the government, and which responsible governors and mayors from both parties have been giving across the nation. Trump only briefly referred to it and moved on.

Nor did Trump include any explanation of the public-health challenges ahead and what he wanted the government to do to meet them. Nothing about hospital capacity, for example.

In fact, the core of the speech was likely counterproductive:

The vast majority of Americans: The risk is very, very low. Young and healthy people can expect to recover fully and quickly if they should get the virus. The highest risk is for elderly population with underlying health conditions. The elderly population must be very, very careful.

In particular, we are strongly advising that nursing homes for the elderly suspend all medically unnecessary visits. In general, older Americans should also avoid nonessential travel in crowded areas.

Yes, later he did include three short sentences urging hygiene and staying home while sick — but only after telling “young and healthy people” that this is about the elderly, and without explaining why it’s so important that everyone pitch in.

Indeed, by continuing to brag about his supposed success in keeping what he called a “foreign” virus out and by pinning his hopes on a new travel ban targeting Europe even though the virus is already spreading across the U.S., Trump still spent much of this short speech in his fantasy world in which he’s heroically defeated the pandemic. There was virtually nothing to prepare people for what’s actually going to happen. It still seems Trump himself doesn’t understand what’s happening.

I have to admit I can’t quite guess how his strongest supporters manage to reconcile all of that with the rapidly increasing number of cases and the increasing changes in daily life that have to be difficult to ignore at this point. Not to mention the plunging stock market. But for everyone except those strongest supporters, his speech must have seemed out of touch with the realities of their lives.

I’ll leave the close analysis of the policy proposals to the experts, other than to repeat that they were focused mainly on the economy, not saving lives, and that he’s still pushing a payroll tax cut that Congress has shown little interest in. (The good news there is that the House is moving ahead with a reasonable package, and it seems possible that the Senate will go ahead and pass it. Is it perfect policy? I doubt it, but fast may be better than perfect at this point, and there’s no reason they can’t go back and add to it later.)

As for delivery? Trump still hasn’t mastered the important skill of using the teleprompter, so he always sounds stilted and uncomfortable when using it. Beyond that, I suspect supporters found him to be forceful and confident, while opponents didn’t. A lot of this is in the eye of the beholder. What I would say, however, is that this was a speech that should have been pitched to the whole nation, both in substance and style, and I don’t think he achieved that.

Trump is not at fault for a global epidemic. Nor are the policy questions easy to get right, either on the public health or the economic side. But he still doesn’t seem to understand the basic course of the spread of the virus; he is ignoring the chorus of professionals with ideas for how to fight it, including those within the government; he continues to subvert efforts to fight it by making false statements and by the general disorganization within his administration; and he still can’t stop praising himself and blaming everyone else, which makes it hard for anyone but his strongest supporters to listen to him. All of this puts the nation at danger while further damaging Trump’s battered presidency.

 

1. Dan Drezner on ideas for an economic response to the pandemic.

2. Matt Grossmann talks with Hal Roberts and Jonathan Ladd about news coverage, social media and voters.

3. A team of researchers at the Monkey Cage on Trump’s rhetoric.

4. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Michael Strain writes against a payroll tax cut.

5. And Jamelle Bouie on disappointed Democrats and their options in a Joe Biden presidency.

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at [email protected]

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tracy Walsh at [email protected]

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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