Donald Trump’s Oval Office speech Wednesday night on the coronavirus pandemic was unnecessarily incendiary, contained some things the White House swiftly had to walk back, others that were not actually true, and fell short of what the moment demanded.
It was also, in its own way, a critical step in the right direction.
Striking his most somber tone in discussing the coronavirus to date, Trump’s Oval Office address injected gravity and even a sense of crisis into a topic that he and right-wing media have downplayed for weeks, assuring Americans “it will disappear” and misleadingly comparing it to the flu.
That’s likely had the unfortunate effect of convincing many, many Americans that the pandemic we’re facing is no big deal.
But this is not just the flu. Even under the most optimistic estimates, Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has several times the death toll and when it overwhelms hospitals, that death toll spikes to horrifying levels.
The president’s speech sought to focus the public’s mind on the danger confronting us. “From the beginning of time nations and people have faced unforeseen challenges including large scale and very dangerous health threats,” he said. He gave the basic advice public health experts have been giving: wash your hands, stay home if you’re sick, keep away from crowded areas. He even used the words “social distancing.” Just as reassuring, after the speech, it was announced that Trump would suspend some upcoming events — a sign that he was also acting on his rhetoric.
Now, with the president striking a serious tone and invoking the language of crisis (“We are at a critical time in the fight against the virus”), there’s a chance the millions of Americans who listen to him will finally snap to attention and take this pandemic seriously.
If Trump’s speech has at least that effect, it will represent progress in our collective fight against this pandemic.
We are a country divided — even over coronavirus
One of the most striking partisan divides in America concerns whether we take the coronavirus seriously.
According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted on March 2-3, 21 percent of Democrats (compared to 14 percent of Republicans) said they were taking steps to avoid physical contact with others. Forty-eight percent of Democratic respondents said they were washing their hands more often to prevent transmission of the virus, compared to 38 percent of Republicans. And the fact is that Republicans have been watching a different story unfold on right-wing media than what the rest of the country is seeing.
It’s a divide that opened up practically overnight. Early public polling about coronavirus fears — see this NPR/PBS/Marist poll released a month ago — found that 63 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of Republicans were “concerned” or “very concerned” about the spread of the coronavirus in the US. Those numbers are pretty close.
But in late February, when cases of community transmission in the US began, the federal government came under fire for delays in testing and Trump continued to downplay the problem. That’s also when polls picked up the widening partisan divide.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) mocked virus concerns by appearing on the Hill in a gas mask. Rush Limbaugh claimed the coronavirus “is the common cold.” As recently as Tuesday, Trump was insisting that “it will go away.” Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders cancelled rallies because of public health concerns, but Trump’s spokespeople said he wouldn’t (he then pulled an about face on that last night).
The thing is, the coronavirus is a uniquely terrible occasion for partisanship. In order to flatten the curve of the outbreak in the US and make sure hospitals are available to everyone who needs them, we need to all take serious measures now — hand-washing and staying home while sick, but also cancelling big events, working from home if you can, and avoiding public spaces as much as possible.
If half the country is still insisting that the virus is just the flu, we’re doomed.
That’s why the president’s Oval Office address struck me as on balance a good thing. Sure, it failed on some pretty basic fronts: it contained confusing misstatements like trade from Europe would be banned; it didn’t touch on essential strategies for increasing our hospital capacity; and it didn’t acknowledge our acute, self-inflicted testing shortage, which is still crippling our response.
He also couldn’t tamp down his typical bluster (“we are responding with great speed and professionalism” — this six weeks after the virus is estimated to have begun circulating) and incendiary rhetoric (he followed other Republicans in making a point of referring to the new coronavirus as a “foreign virus”).
And some of what it did propose seems misguided: Trump announced a travel ban on visitors from Europe, but the virus is already spreading within our borders and might soon overwhelm our first responders. It will take fast, extreme measures to change things — and the speech didn’t really offer them.
But he also actually offered good advice. “Each of us has a role to play in defeating this virus. Wash your hands, clean often-used surfaces, cover your face and mouth if you sneeze or cough, and most of all, if you are sick or not feeling well, stay home,” Trump said. “Acting with compassion and love, we will heal the sick, care for those in need, help our fellow citizens, and emerge from this challenge stronger and more unified than ever before.” (Sure, this may be the soft bigotry of low expectations talking, but progress is progress.)
And more critically, he was serious and solemn while telling viewers what was at stake. Roughly 40 percent of the country has steadfastly approved of the president through every scandal, corruption allegation, impeachment hearing, and embarrassing tweet — and they probably believed him these last few weeks as he’s downplayed virus’s spread. This speech was for them.
It’s not too late for America to come together, throw our talent and resources at the problem, and turn the tide — but the first step has to be a national consensus that there is a problem, that the stakes here are frighteningly real.
I hope more than anything that his supporters believe him, because we need them — we need everyone — to win this thing.
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