Lent 2020 — Day 36

The Speech a Great President Would Give Now

If we’re ever going to have great presidents again, we need to hold a space in our imaginations that a great president could occupy.

Ever since Donald Trump made his famous descent down the escalator to announce his candidacy (and assert that Mexicans crossing the border are rapists), we’ve been lowering our standards to his level. Once in a great while he does something so outrageous that his opponents try (and usually fail) to draw a line in the sand. But for the most part we’ve just accepted that he will do the kinds of things he does: ignore obvious facts, insult large swathes of people who have done nothing to deserve it, funnel public money into his own businesses, deny that he said what he said, respond to his critics with schoolyard taunts, and so on. We’ve come to expect him to politicize everything, admit no mistakes, fire anyone who reveals inconvenient truths, and confront everyone who comes into his presence with the choice to flatter him or face his wrath.

At times I’ve been as guilty of this normalization as anyone. Given a choice between letting a lie or injustice go unremarked, and distracting my readers from what I saw as more important issues, I’ve often just shrugged off norm-violations that would have been major scandals in any previous American administration.

Still, every now and then I think it’s worthwhile to ask ourselves: “What would a real leader do in this situation?” Not because I imagine Trump will listen to our answer, slap his forehead, and say, “That’s a good idea!”, but just to maintain our own sense of what is good and right. If we’re ever going to have great presidents again, we need to hold a space in our imaginations that a great president could occupy.

So I have written a speech for a great president to deliver in the midst of the current crisis. There’s no reason Trump couldn’t deliver it, and I hope he does. For obvious reasons, he won’t. I accept that, but I’m still going to put the vision out there.

My fellow Americans:

Every president faces crises and makes decisions that could either save or cost lives. I have already faced my share: military conflicts in various parts of the world; hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, as well as floods and tornadoes and the full run of other natural disasters. An economic crisis may not take as many lives as war or disease, but it can ruin lives, as people lose their jobs and homes and dreams for the future.

The current crisis, the one brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, is on a scale most presidents never need to confront. Thousands of Americans are dead, and some estimate that the eventual toll could be in the hundreds of thousands, or even millions. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are already sick. Tens of thousands of businesses hang in the balance, and millions of Americans have lost their jobs. Tens of millions are sheltering in their homes.

This is not only the greatest crisis of the four-year term I was elected to in 2016, but most likely it will overshadow the crises of the next four years as well. So whether I serve four years or eight, I believe I have already met the defining challenge of my presidency, the one for which history will judge me.

Public-health experts I trust tell me that we will go through the peak of this crisis in the next month or two. No one can guarantee what will happen after that, but I think it is safe to say that the most important chapters in the story of this pandemic will be written between now and the inauguration in 2021.

It is desperately important that we get this right. The decisions that are made between now and November or January — here in the White House, in Congress, throughout government at every level, and in homes all over this country — could save or cost the lives of countless human beings, and save or cost the livelihoods of countless more. When the stakes are this high, we can’t let politics interfere with doing the right thing.

And yet, how can it not, as we move towards the 2020 election? Already, both my supporters and my critics interpret everything I do in the light of that election. I deserve credit for this, blame for that — no I don’t, yes I do — it goes on and on. But none of those arguments save anyone. They just make it harder for America to move forward in unity.

When this is all over, there will be plenty of time to distribute credit and blame. There are undoubtedly many lessons to learn — both good and bad — from what we have done so far. But trying to do that analysis in the middle of the crisis, and absorbing that discussion into what was already a poisonous partisan environment before Covid-19 emerged, does not serve this country. Partisanship can only decrease the likelihood that we will judge correctly, or learn the lessons that might save us from the next plague.

Right now, there are many things I wish I could do for this country, but they are beyond my powers. I can’t banish the disease by executive order. I can’t decree a vaccine or effective treatment into existence here and now. I can’t speed time up so that we jump past the peak of the crisis and skip all the suffering Americans will have to endure in the coming weeks and months.

But there is one thing I can do: To a large extent, I can take partisan politics out of this struggle, and I’m going to do that right now with this announcement: I will not be a candidate for re-election in November, nor will I endorse any candidate in that election. Instead, I will lead the battle against this disease until my term ends in January.

The election will still happen, and I’m sure the candidates who vie to replace me will debate their views and their plans with all the vigor we expect from a presidential campaign. But I will take no part in it. If any members of my administration want to participate in that election, God bless them, but I will ask them to step away from whatever active roles they might be playing in managing our country’s response to the virus.

I cannot insist that others follow my example. But I can ask political leaders at all levels do what they can to take partisan politics out of this effort. Most of us tell ourselves that we entered politics to do something important. Let me suggest that nothing you might do in future years from future offices will be quite so important as what you do these next few months. Lives and livelihoods are at stake.

Going forward, there are many choices to make, and I expect to hear much argument about what should happen next. A healthy democracy always has room for disagreement. But let those discussions center on the health and well-being of our citizens, not on the November elections, and especially not on me. My political future is already set: I will finish my term and then return to the private sector to await history’s judgement on my actions. I pray history will be able to say that I rallied a unified nation to take decisive and successful action.

God bless you all, and God bless the United States of America.

~~ Doug Muder, 2020 April 6

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