Donald Trump hasn’t sounded like a great president this week. He maybe hasn’t even sounded like a good president. But during a press conference yesterday, something remarkable happened: Donald Trump sounded like a president. The world is truly upside-down.
The only way to fight this pandemic involves informing the American people, and changing their behavior. The president’s belated flirtation with competence—delivering a genuinely important call for social distancing to prevent the spread of coronavirus in his speech Monday, turning the mic over to public-health experts, and respectfully answering questions—couldn’t have come at a more important time. He mostly stuck to that approach at the Coronavirus Task Force briefing on Tuesday.
As a former presidential speechwriter, I believe the importance of presidential rhetoric is generally overrated. But this moment is different. What the president says, and how he says it, matters. Whether or not you support this president, his words are now a matter of life and death.
Trump has shown us he’s capable of delivering at least one solid speech, so where does he go from here?
Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way. He should amplify rather than undermine experts. He should focus more on the public-health crisis facing America and less on his re-election campaign. He can spin–all politicians do–but he has to stop lying.
But that’s not all. If Trump is going to continue to address the nation in a way that makes us more rather than less safe, here are three things presidents of both parties have done in the past–and that this president needs to start doing today.
First, deliver a consistent message to the entire country. Within hours of his commendable press conference on Monday, @realDonaldTrump was calling COVID-19 “the Chinese Virus.” This morning, he took partisan potshots at New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, two chief executives doing everything they can to protect their states without nearly enough federal support. This is racist in the former case and divisive in the latter, red meat for the base as Trump tries to have it both ways: addressing a public-health crisis in front of the mainstream media while turning the pandemic into a culture-war issue for his most loyal supporters.
It won’t work. Rhetorically, the inconsistency won’t work because presidents are too heavily scrutinized, particularly in times of crisis. Everyone is listening to everything coming out of the White House, all the time. Far worse, the inconsistency will undermine public health. The president’s racist labels and partisan snipes are a wink and a nudge to his base, telling them not to pay attention to what he says when flanked by experts on TV. In February, as Trump publicly downplayed the coronavirus, the percentage of Republicans taking the threat seriously was cut nearly in half. At a time when Americans’ lives depend on heeding public warnings, the president’s comms strategy may very well get people killed. He needs to be the president we saw Monday, not occasionally, not just on occasion, but all the time.
Second, start showing some empathy. He’s not incapable of it. For example, he clearly sympathized with major airlines going through a difficult and trying time. Now it’s time to try taking that same approach to human beings. Express sorrow for the sick and their loved ones, or for the restaurant workers suddenly without jobs. Tell us a story of a heroic ER nurse saving patients, or an ordinary American volunteering to buy groceries for her elderly neighbors.
Looking back on our history, we’ve had some naturally empathic presidents. We’ve had some psychos. But regardless of their personal temperaments, they’ve understood that empathy is not just about making us feel good. It’s about building public trust. If we think you understand what we’re going through, we’re far more likely to listen to everything else you have to say. Assuming the president can continue heeding expert advice, that kind of trust could save lives right now.
Third, and finally, admit a mistake. Of course, I’d like Trump to take full responsibility for his completely mishandled early response to the coronavirus—the lies, bluster, and blame-casting that led directly to the situation we face today. But Donald Trump is a politician. A full mea culpa is not going to happen. What could happen, and should happen, is a minor mea culpa, an acknowledgment that the government’s actions so far have been less than perfect. The president could admit that slashing the CDC’s budget was, in retrospect, a poor way to save money. He could fall back on the old political trope, the “failure to communicate.”
Apologizing isn’t about doing the right thing, or satisfying libs like me. Apologizing is about rebuilding credibility. When Trump insists that his administration’s actions have been “perfect” (just like the Ukraine phone call), or when the White House rolls out a parade of flunkies to shower praise on their boss’s leadership, the only people inclined to believe them are the people who will believe them anyway. The rest of us–the majority of Americans–reach the obvious conclusion that he’s lying. Tuesday, an NPR poll found that only 40 percent of Americans trust the information they’re hearing about the coronavirus from Trump–and only 16 percent trust him “a great deal.”
A single, small acknowledgement of a mistake won’t change that overnight. But it’s a start. While presidents have always spun circumstances to make themselves look good, there’s a strategic reason, not just a moral one, for agreeing that the buck stops with them. By demonstrating a willingness to be honest about failures, you make Americans far more likely to believe you’re being honest about everything else. In a crisis like the one we face today–with the risks of pandemic on one hand and the risks of panic on the other–a president’s credibility can save lives.
Consistency. Empathy. At least a smidgen of humility. These things shouldn’t be too much for any president–and after the last two days, I don’t believe they’re too much for Trump. If this is not just a strange blip on the radar, but the start of a permanent change in tone, it won’t just make Americans less likely to yell at the TV when their president comes on the screen. During the campaign, Trump promised to act presidential once in office. If he decides to keep his promise, however belatedly, he can prevent this tragedy from becoming even worse.
And yes, a change in tone will also increase the president’s chances of being re-elected. Like a majority of Americans, I didn’t vote for Trump the first time around. Like a majority of Americans, I don’t approve of his job performance. But while Trump may not be a president we like, or the president we voted for, he’s the president we have. All of us need him to start acting presidential right now. American jobs, and American lives, depend on it.