James Bouie: Presidents judged on handling crisis; except Trump

Many give Trump a pass over his leadership during the covid pandemic. Do we risk another crisis?

By Jamelle Bouie / The New York Times

For many millions of Americans, time seemed to move differently under President Donald Trump.

There was no breathing room — no calm in the eye of the storm. From beginning to end, from the “American carnage” inaugural on Jan. 20, 2017, to the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, it felt as if the country was in constant flux, each week a decade. We lurched from dysfunction to chaos and back again, eventually crashing on the shores of the nation’s worst domestic crisis since the Great Depression.

For many, if not most, of these Americans, the choice this November is no choice at all. They escaped Polyphemus once; they don’t intend to return to his den.

There are other voters who take a very different view. To them, Trump’s term was a time of peace and prosperity. They don’t register the pandemic or the subsequent economic crisis as part and parcel of the administration. They don’t hold Trump responsible.

In fact, one of the most striking findings in a number of recent polls is the extent to which a large portion of the electorate has given Trump a pass for his last year in office. For example, in an April CBS News poll of key battleground states, roughly 62% of registered voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin said that when they look back at 2020, their state’s economy was good. In the moment, however, a majority of voters in those states disapproved of Trump’s handling of the economy.

For the sake of additional context, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rates in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in June 2019 were 4.1%, 3.2% and 4.2%. A year later, in June 2020, the unemployment rate had grown to 14.5% in Michigan, 8.7% in Wisconsin and 11.3% in Pennsylvania.

Unemployment is not, of course, the only measure of economic health. But it is an important one. And it is hard to say that an economy is firing on all cylinders when 1 in 10 people wants a job but can’t find one.

The assessment of the 2020 economy seen in the CBS survey makes sense, however, if voters are crediting Trump for the prepandemic economy and giving him a pass for 2020. The most recent New York Times/Siena poll, released Monday, shows exactly this. When asked to list one thing they “remember most” from Trump’s time in office, 4% of registered voters said the “coronavirus pandemic,” and 5% said the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Some 24% of respondents said something related to the economy or “the stimulus,” and when asked to specify, they said they remembered how good it was. “The economy was a little better than it is now,” one Trump supporter said. “The economy was in a lot better shape than it is now,” said another.

Again, Trump presided over a recession worsened by his total failure to manage the coronavirus. As covid deaths mounted, Trump spread misinformation and left states scrambling for needed supplies. It was not until after the March stock market crash that the White House issued its plan to blunt the economic impact of the pandemic. And the most generous provisions found in the CARES Act, including a vast expansion of unemployment benefits, were negotiated into the bill by Democratic lawmakers.

None of this seems to matter to voters. “The economy” under Trump is simply the one that existed from Jan. 20, 2017, to March 13, 2020, when the White House declared the coronavirus a national public health emergency. For everything else after that date, the former president gets a pass.

No other president has gotten this kind of excused absence for mismanaging a crisis that happened on his watch. We don’t bracket the secession crisis from our assessment of James Buchanan or the Great Depression from our judgment of Herbert Hoover or the hostage crisis in Iran from our assessment of Jimmy Carter. And for good reason: The presidency was designed for crisis. It was structured with the power and autonomy needed for handling the acute challenges of national life.

“Energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government,” Alexander Hamilton argued in Federalist 70. “It is essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks; it is not less essential to the steady administration of the laws.” And the most important ingredient that constitutes energy in the executive is “unity.”

“Those politicians and statesmen who have been the most celebrated for the soundness of their principles and for the justice of their views have declared in favor of a single executive and a numerous legislature,” Hamilton wrote. “They have, with great propriety, considered energy as the most necessary qualification of the former, and have regarded this as most applicable to power in a single hand.”

The point and the purpose of vesting a single elected official with the executive authority was to give the national government the ability to respond to national emergencies with alacrity and focus. We have made it a point to judge presidents on the basis of their ability to handle a crisis, whether war or internal rebellion or economic collapse.

Except, it seems, when it comes to Trump. With the notable exception of Operation Warp Speed — which he now disavows as he caters to anti-vaccine sentiment among Republican voters — Trump failed to handle his crisis, and the nation paid a steep price in lives as a result. But memories are short, and nostalgia clouds the senses. The voters who give Trump a pass for his final year in office may well put him back in the White House. Having failed to fulfill his responsibilities the first time, Trump may return to fail again.

The prospect of a second term of chaos, dysfunction and gross contempt for the rights and liberties of millions of Americans makes Trump himself a kind of crisis in the making. Something tells me there won’t be a pass for President Joe Biden if he fails to handle it.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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