Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Speaking to the nation from the Oval Office Wednesday night, President Donald Trump put on his serious face. In a televised address, the president finally seemed to acknowledge the severity of the coronavirus threat to the nation and outlined steps his administration plans to take in the weeks ahead.
These included a 30-day ban on travel for foreign nationals from Europe to the United States (excluding Britain), as well as economic relief for workers and small businesses. The President offered some recommendations for citizens trying to avoid contracting the coronavirus—he appears to have finally listened to the experts who have been calling for a stronger response.
The address is a stark contrast to the long list of statements the president has made on the issue up until now, which have defied the facts. He has insisted, for example, that there were enough tests available all over the country for anyone to get tested anytime, and that the number of cases was dwindling. These things were not true.
He has gone against the words of his own medical officials and left the country in a fog of Trumpian disinformation. He has primarily spoken about the pandemic in terms of providing economic stimuli that could mitigate its effects, rather than offering a plan for containing the spread of the disease. Even as this pandemic has gotten worse, the administration has held firm to its demand to cut funding to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Trump’s words won’t erase the bumbling response to the disease’s spread, and this has been a major problem for those Americans citizens who don’t have confidence in the president – who himself is the face of our federal government. If there were such a thing as presidential malpractice, his response to coronavirus would be it: He has treated it as an extension of his general disregard for Washington, the city in which he governs.
As New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on CNN after the address, what President Trump did not offer to viewers was a defense of government, a promise of what the government would do, and a plan for government action.
President Trump, who governs as a Republican in the age of conservatism, is incapable of delivering this message. As Governor Cuomo told his CNN-host brother Chris, “It’s government baby.”
The bottom line is that in times of crisis Americans need their government.
Without a strong government we would never have made it through a host of difficult times that confronted the nation over the years.
During periods of economic hardship, Americans have relied on federal policies. This was true in the Great Depression in the 1930s, when unemployment reached 25%. As President Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Congress created a massive number of programs to help the country survive hardship and to revitalize crucial sectors like banking and farming, where the bottom had completely fallen out.
When financial and housing markets collapsed in 2008, a conservative Republican president, George W. Bush, worked with Democrats to push through a massive bailout of the banking industry and achieve stability.
When Americans have attempted to resolve chronic societal crises, government has been a standard solution. As elderly Americans were unable to obtain adequate health care protection before the 1960s, lacking adequate insurance to cover the cost of hospitals and physicians, they only found relief in 1965 when Congress created Medicare and Medicaid.
Social injustice crises have long led marginalized Americans to ask the government for help. As industrial workers in factories tried to organize to protect their rights on the shop floor, they only found the strength that they needed when Congress created the National Labor Relations Board in 1935, a federal body that legitimated and regulating unions.
When Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights advocates took to the streets to protest racial segregation and disenfranchisement, their voices culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Americans who suffered from physical disabilities finally saw their lives change after President George H.W. Bush worked with a Democratic Congress to enact the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.
When there are natural disasters, we have looked to government. In 1968, Congress created the Federal Insurance Administration. The Federal Emergency Management Administration, which formally got underway in 1979, has been one of the most important government bodies assisting in cleanup and rescue efforts.
Public health crises are always major moments that reveal how necessary government is to Americans. Since its creation in 1946, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been the main source for information on outbreaks and tracking their spread.
In 1962, the CDC was credited with helping to eradicate smallpox. When the Reagan administration finally responded to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, after too many years when President Ronald Reagan refused to deal with the disease or even utter its name, it was Surgeon General C. Everett Koop’s public information campaign that aimed to teach Americans safe sex. In the years after, regulatory moves to accelerate FDA drug approval were extraordinarily important to beginning the process of containing the crisis.
President George W. Bush’s PEPFAR program, which sent billons to Africa to combat the spread of AIDS, was considered to be one of his most important successes.
During the Ebola crisis in 2014-2016, President Barack Obama adroitly managed government resources and mobilized top expertise to help bring the situation under control. “Right now, the world has the responsibility to act, to step up and to do more. The United States of America intends to do more,” he said, in remarks at the CDC in 2014.
And when there are major challenges overseas—such as the rise of fascism in the 1930s and 1940s—we depend on a robust wartime mobilization to fight any threat to democracy and to undertake a full mobilization at home.
In the 1940s, President Roosevelt mobilized industry to produce the munitions needed to fight the war and managed the economy on the home front to avoid inflation. After 9/11, government surveillance was important to gathering information about terrorist networks.
Great presidents understand that they are the face of the federal government; the words they use are hugely consequential in crisis. At a time that banks were collapsing in 1933, President Roosevelt’s Fireside Chat address on the radio helped citizens achieve some sense of calm.
After John F. Kennedy’s tragic assassination in November 1963, Lyndon Johnson offered stirring words, saying “Let us continue.” After the space shuttle Challenger exploded in midair, killing all aboard, including a schoolteacher, President Reagan offered the nation solace in a stirring address in 1986.
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So now as the nation suffers through a pandemic, with lives turned upside down and financial markets in virtual freefall, the country is once again looking to the government to provide a response and so far, disappointed to see what’s there.
It seems nearly impossible that President Trump will be able to bolster much of the nation’s confidence in the ability of the government to handle the situation—his record of callous indirection and his seeming lack of comprehension of real danger faced by regular people is too long and too damaging.
But other parts of Washington can step in to fill the void: Congressional Democrats, who have been struggling to restore order in our capital, and Republicans who have remained silent as the President has strained our institutions. Governors like Cuomo and Jay Inslee in Washington state are on the front-lines of this battle, and their states can serve as “laboratories of democracy,” as Louis Brandeis once said.
It was not surprising to see a surge of support for Joe Biden during the last two weeks of the Democratic primary season, as his long experience in the Senate and service as vice president demonstrate his life-long commitment, regardless of his flaws, to the institution that Americans need most right now as we make our way through this public health crisis: the government.