This paradox has produced intense cross pressure inside the White House. Commercial interests, economic advisers and Republican conservatives are seeking to end the closure that interrupted normal life and put 16 million Americans out of work; public health officials warn that premature displacement risks a second tsunami of infection with escalating loss of life and more serious economic damage.
“We must act as a trained and loyal army, ready to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline,” said Roosevelt in his first inaugural address. “Because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. “
“This is the crucial governance issue we face,” said Donald Kettl, researcher at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. “The problem we have now is fear based on uncertainty. “
Governing himself by impulsiveness, Trump has not shown the will to face the moment. He hesitated earlier to end the social distance by Easter before giving in to Fauci by extending federal directives until April 30.
Now, with a leading epidemiological model predicting fewer deaths than before, Trump hesitates again when he speaks of a “big bang” economic recovery next month. But this model assumes that restrictions on social displacement continue until the end of May. Early release could have fatal consequences.
In the meantime, Trump has turned the daily coronavirus briefings into his personal political scene more than a place of disclosure to help Americans deal with their doubts. In a pandemic involving a new infection for which the entire world lacks immunity, weighing the costs and benefits of loosening restrictions requires continuous risk recalibration.
The governors of the two parties have filled the void in their states. At the epicenter of the pandemic, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York this week is focusing on discipline and, while reporting on hospitalizations and deaths.
“The trajectory is the trajectory that we create by our actions,” Cuomo said on Friday. Other states like Maryland, which have acted aggressively, are behind New York on the case growth curve and have not yet reached their crisis peaks.
Mark McClellan, who headed the Food and Drug Administration under President George W. Bush, joined former Trump FDA chief Scott Gottlieb in a group of health policy professionals helping Congress and the administration to identify the national objectives necessary to safely resume social and economic activities. He hopes that the Americans have been alarmed enough to remain patient behind an approach centered not on a specific date, but rather on the achievement of tests and treatment criteria.
“People are still pretty nervous,” said McClellan, who now runs a health policy center at Duke University. “People will also remember how bad things went. “
Deep divisions on when to return to old routines
A CNN poll last week showed most wanted to stay on the line. 80% of them fear that the worst of the epidemic is looming; 60% are embarrassed to resume regular routines if the current White House guidelines expire on April 30.
Yet underlying these numbers is a clear partisan divide. More than twice as many Republicans (53%) say they could comfortably resume their regular routines as Democrats (23%).
Republican impatience, amplified by conservative media, creates a feedback loop inhibiting the coherent national response that the White House coronavirus task force calls necessary to reduce the threat. GOP officials, business leaders and religious figures eager for religious services have once again thrown restrictions on coronaviruses as unnecessarily “draconian,” as Attorney General William Barr said last week.
Hitherto hesitant to name May 1 as the focal point, Trump recognizes the potential for flashback. Vice President Mike Pence said “we’re going to follow the data”.
Trump followed the data two weeks ago by refusing to lift federal guidelines by Easter. It will be more difficult to reduce intra-partisan pressure for broader national interests, when improvement raises hopes, than when conditions deteriorate.
“What people need is a clear message that is the same no matter where they are,” says Kettl. “It’s a leadership challenge that starts at the top. “