First, much about this situation is not the president’s fault. Perfect leadership would likely not have shielded the country from the disease; no government anywhere has been able to do so. Even the countries that are managing the virus best—such as South Korea—have had thousands of cases, though the most successful governments have managed to keep deaths relatively low. Other larger democratic countries—Germany, France, the United Kingdom—have all had more than 20,000 cases. And all are facing exponential growth in cases as well. So there’s no reason to think that the United States was going to avoid a great deal of suffering and death and major economic fallout from the virus. The whole of the picture cannot be laid at Trump’s feet.
What’s more, even with capable management of the crisis, the U.S. may not have been able to perform as South Korea has. Big differences between the U.S. and South Korea—beyond Trump—account for some of their performance variation on the coronavirus. Perhaps the most important is South Korea’s relatively recent experiences with SARS in 2002 and MERS in 2015, and the resulting legal regime the country has in place to deal with infectious disease. Brian Kim—writing in Lawfare—describes this regime as “a custom-made legal apparatus that has empowered authorities to collect and disseminate private information in aggressive ways.” No similar legal authority exists in the United States, which has not experienced comparable recent epidemics that would have prompted it to create a similar legal framework.
Moreover, the United States has a federal system, which divides the power to respond to an epidemic among federal and state authorities—meaning that even a perfect federal administration would have only some of the necessary powers.