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How Donald Trump compares to other 'wartime' presidents

No visitor to Las Vegas should leave town without a visit to the astonishing Hoover Dam.

If you get on the I-515 and head west, zipping through the changing colours of the Nevada dessert, you can be there in less than an hour. You are unlikely to be disappointed.

Built between 1929-1935, and designed to make electrical power from the waters of the Colorado River, the project has come to symbolise what people and their leaders can do once they set their minds to a task. It represents what can be achieved despite – or even because of – adversity, in this case the global ruin of the Great Depression.

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People love to admire the dam’s engineering, with public lavatories completed with polish brass doors. They like to look down at the waters deep below, and they pose for selfies as they plant one foot in Nevada and the other in Arizona, marking as the river does the state line.

And some may also reflect that while the dam is named for president Herbert Hoover, by the time it was completed, he had been humiliated in his bid for reelection, turned on by a population angry and desperate. It would be his successor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who would oversee its official dedication.

In recent days, as Donald Trump has been confronted by the coronavirus crisis, there has been much talk about how his performance will be remembered. 

Will he be remembered like Hoover, seen to have underestimated the full scale of the devastation wrought by the financial plunge, and much more interested in his reelection chances this November and the stock market to which he believes they are inextricably linked. Or will he be an FDR, harnessing the vast power available to him as occupant of the Oval Office, and using it to do good. (FDR was elected to office four times, and in his first run in 1932 used as his campaign song Happy Days Are Here Again.)

Donald Trump never wanted a war. He campaigned on a platform to withdraw US troops from places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. 

But a war is what he has got. This week, the number of coronavirus infections in the US passed 100,000, more than any other country. The number of deaths was around 1,600. 

Every day, Trump appears before the TV cameras to insist his administration is on top of the problem, and suggests the emergency social distancing measures and closures put in place could be gone by Easter. He says the individual states – there are now infections in all 50 – should lead the fight against the virus.

Yet, in cities such as New York, Seattle and New Orleans, mayors and state governors make pleas for more federal help, not less. Emergency mortuaries are erected in the centre of New York City and hospital administrators across the country warn they have insufficient stocks of basic items such as face masks, gowns and ventilators.

Such is the paucity of supply, they say, nurses and other medics are having to reuse items such as masks, or try and buy supplies from Amazon. Why has the president been so loathe to make use of powers such as the Defence Production Act to force companies to produce these life-saving items. (He finally ordered General Motors on Friday to produce ventilators, accusing the auto giant of  “wasting time” during negotiations.)

According to a recording obtained by the Associated Press, in a conference call with governors, Trump said he wanted the federal government to act as “back-up”.

“I don’t want you to be the backup quarterback; we need you to be Tom Brady here,” snapped Washington governor Jay Inslee, referring to the legendary, record-winning NFL quarterback who now plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, after 20 years with the New England Patriots.

Even Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland, who was approached to see if he would challenge Trump this year in the primary, said that what the president was saying from White House briefing room, did not match the reality on the ground

“Some of the messaging is pretty confusing. It’s not just it doesn’t match with what we’re doing here in Maryland,” he told CNN. “We don’t think we are going to be in any way out of this in five or six days or so, or whenever this 15 days is up, from the time they started this imaginary clock.” 

Meg Jacobs, an historian and scholar at Princeton University, wrote recently about what lessons the different performances of Hoover and FDR may have for Trump.

While FDR did not come to office during a literal war, the 1929 crash triggered economic devastation in the same way Covid-19 could. And Trump has termed the fight against the virus “a war”.

“There are a couple of things to consider about a wartime leader,” Jacobs, author of Conservatives in Power: The Reagan Years, 1981-1989, tells The Independent. “There first is that they are supposed to inspire and reassure. The second is that they are supposed to execute real time solutions.”

She adds: “Trump’s way of trying to boost morale was to play down the virus. People may be getting more reassurance from the governors who talk about what is happening on the ground.”

Susan Rice, who served as Barack Obama’s national security advisor, joining the administration as the 2007-2008 economic crisis dug deep, was far more scathing.

In an article in the New York Times, she claimed the president was failing in four major areas – not preparing for the crisis, portraying Covid-19 as a “foreign” or Chinese disease, not providing sufficient testing kits to enable officials to accurately get a scale of the problem, and lying about its severity.

As top health officials such as Nancy Messonnier at the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) and Anthony Fauci warned of the likely severity of the disease, Trump compared it to the flu. 

“It’s going to disappear,” he said one day in late February. “One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” 

“In times of national crisis, the American people look to our president for leadership and direction,” wrote Rice. “So far, the Trump administration has failed miserably. The number of cases in the United States is growing exponentially, and our health system is ill equipped to determine the scope of the disease.”

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How then, to explain the polls?

It is not just Trump, who on Friday signed the largest ever financial stimulus package in history, who seems to think he is doing a good job. While the president may be his own most persistent booster  – “I’d rate it a 10. I think we’ve done a great job” – polls show many Americans approve of his leadership at this moment of anxiety and fear.

A recent poll by Gallup suggests the president’s approval rating is at an all-time high of around 49 per cent, and close to 60 per cent think he has done a good job. Other polls, including ones by Pew, Monmouth University and Fox News, suggest he has had a bump.

Matt Mackowiak, a veteran Republican strategist who divides his time between Washington DC and Austin, Texas, says the administration’s initial response was slow and disorganised.

However, since the task force was created, officially under the leadership of vice president Mike Pence but whose press conferences are dominated by Trump, it had been moving “decisively”

“They are working well with states and local governments and have earned the assistance of many in the private sector. There remain a few hot spots (NY, NJ, CA, WA), but it appears we may be turning a corner and limiting the damage,” he says.

Jeffrey Jones, a senior editor at Gallup, points to another factor, as Trump appears on television every day, seeking to shape the narrative of what is happening, even as critics attack him for providing what they say is a  simulacrum of real leadership.

“Historically, presidential job approval has increased when the nation is under threat. Every president from FDR to George W Bush saw their approval rating surge at least 10 points after a significant national event of this kind,” he writes. “During these rallies, independents and supporters of the opposing party to the president typically show heightened support for the commander in chief.”

Jones pointed to a 35-point jump received by Bush after the attacks of 9/11 but said increased political partisanship since the administrations of Obama and now Trump, limited such bumps. 

The writer and scholar Markos Kounalakis, who is married to  Eleni Kounalakis, the Democratic lieutenant governor of California, says Trump’s performance as a wartime president has been poor.

He says strong leadership in such circumstances requires a unifying leader, a unifying enemy and a unifying culture. 

He says it is literally impossible to see the coronavirus which makes it harder to fight, a problem Bush shared with his attempt to launch a “war on terror”. He said given much of Trump’s political tactics were to focus on division and discord, it was now impossible for him to pivot to be someone who could lead. As to his poll bump, he says it is actually modest.

“We know he has this hard base of 40 per cent. If you’re telling me his number is 49 per cent, that just means 9 per cent of Americans at this crisis have united behind him,” he says. “After 9/11, Bush’s was 90 per cent. Given he is on TV all the time, a 9 per cent rise is abysmal.” 

Robert Chase is a historian at Stony Brook University on New York’s Long Island. He and others are teaching students online, but the university’s hospital has set up a triage area to treat people suffering from coronavirus.

Chase says he believes Trump will be remembered more as a Hoover than an FDR. Even before the virus struck, he says, the president had been cutting money from the CDC and defunding international efforts to take on pandemics. Once Covid-19 started to make headlines, Trump sought to play down the danger with comments he says will be looked back on as having been a “disaster”.

By contrast, he says, when FDR took office he closed the banks after a month-long run. When they were reopened, he ensured depositors had insurance on their money, something widely considered to have restored confidence. 

He explained what he was doing with so-called “fireside chats”, a series of approachable, calm radio addresses from the White House, in which he explained not only what steps were being undertaken, but why they were needed.

“Part of the president’s job … beyond the policies, beyond the budgeting, is to calm the public, calm the panic, and give the public a sense that what their leaders are saying and doing is true, accurate, and can be relied upon,” he says. “This is something other presidents in crises have risen to, but this is an occasion in which Trump has failed, and I think, quite miserably.”

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