Commentary: Trump’s cold feet on Covid-19 response risky

The economic costs of current restrictions are severe; lifting them early could be even more damaging.

By Daniel W. Drezner / Special to The Washington Post

By just about every available metric, the coronavirus pandemic in the United States has been getting worse. This is true if one uses rough counts of those infected or looks at how well the United States is doing compared with other countries at similar stages in the outbreak. Although an awful lot of U.S. civil society has responded with alacrity to the emergency, there is currently little evidence that the United States has “flattened the curve.”

Despite the absence of encouraging data, President Trump and his economic advisers are apparently thinking about steering away from the state of emergency and looking to jump-start the faltering U.S. economy in the next week or so. The first clue was in a tweet late Sunday from the president:

“WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!”

According to The Washington Post, we have a pretty good idea of where the president wants to go: “President Trump is weighing calls from some Republican lawmakers and White House advisers to scale back steps to contain the coronavirus despite the advice of federal health officials as a growing number of conservatives argue that the impact on the economy has become too severe.”

This matches reporting from NBC News, Vanity Fair, the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. And Bloomberg News reports that Trump was thinking about this as early as late last week.

If this sounds insane given what prompted the national emergency in the first place, it’s worth noting that an awful lot of policymaking is doing cost-benefit analyses, and most cost-benefit analyses have to assign a dollar amount to the life of a human being. It is a crass, dehumanizing thing to do, and yet it must be done all the time. Very few public policies are rooted in some Kantian categorical imperative. Most are grounded in a utilitarian trade-off.

To put it another way: It would save more lives on the road if the speed limit on all highways were reduced to 35 mph. It would also impose significant costs (and loss of life) in other ways, however, and most Americans accept that such stringent speed limits would impose too many costs per lives saved.

The economic costs to the current state of emergency are severe and could be catastrophic. So it is entirely appropriate that a president calculate the costs and benefits of continuing to pursue extreme measures as sheltering in place.

The problem, however, is that this president is incapable of such calculation. Among the president’s bigger toddler traits are his short attention span and poor impulse control. Both are compromising his ability to make reasoned decisions.

If you think this is an exaggeration, let’s consider some of the details from the stories cited above. According to Peter Alexander and Shannon Pettypiece of NBC News, this is how Trump is thinking about this issue:

“One point of tension as Trump tries to balance public and economic health has been air travel. He has repeatedly raised concerns in meetings about the optics of grounded planes and empty airports, according to two people familiar with the meetings. He’s argued that those images would look bad for him and could further drag down the economy, they said, while others have made the case for sharply curtailing air travel.”

Needless to say, even if portions of the country could get back to normal, facilitating air travel would encourage the reemergence of the novel coronavirus in places where it is not prevalent.

Annie Karni, Maggie Haberman and Reid Epstein of the New York Times report: “Aides said that how Mr. Trump ends up being perceived would also depend on Mr. Trump’s own disposition during the crisis. It is not clear to them whether he will be able to maintain his focus on the crisis for months, especially as the economic situation worsens.”

A president with an inability to focus is likely to change strategies out of boredom as much as anything else.

And then there’s the Associated Press story by Jonathan Lemire, Jill Colvin and Zeke Miller. It really should be read in its entirety, but here are the parts that stand out:

“Unable to travel and unsure of what to do, he’s been crashing West Wing meetings, often forcing staffers to hurriedly adjust agendas as the president frequently gets in the way of health professionals trying to chart a course of action …

“Trump has rebuked reporters whose questions he does not like, and behind closed doors, it has been much the same. The president has snapped at aides delivering news that contradicts his relentless belief the crisis will be resolved soon.

“Upon his return from a trip to India last month, Trump lit into aides about Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who had provided a dire warning about the virus’ potential impact. He chided Vice President Mike Pence in a West Wing meeting for defending Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a one-time Democratic presidential contender, for his handling of the crisis. And he angrily upbraided medical providers who called on his administration to do more, saying they should be upset instead with their local leadership.”

Beyond this president’s inability to do cost-benefit analysis, there is the small matter that any reasonable analysis strongly stacks the deck in favor of extreme measures in the short term rather than a premature return to ordinary activity. See labor economist Betsey Stevenson’s back-of-the-envelope calculations, for example, or simply the realization that any attempt to prematurely return to normal business activity will inevitably fall prey to a renewed bout of the coronavirus. Even jurisdictions that have responded well to the virus have had to cope with renewed flare-ups.

The obsessive short-term thinking of Trump (and White House adviser Jared Kushner) threatens to overwhelm that logic, however. In the end, the crassest argument will be necessary to persuade Trump not to do what he is thinking of doing. Lifting emergency procedures will hurt Trump’s voters more than anyone else, because they are more likely to listen to him and follow his lead. This means they are more likely to get infected and die before they can cast their ballots in November.

That is a coldhearted thing to say. It also might be the only thing that stops Trump from killing more than a half-million Americans.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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