The narrative will be that the president was cruising to reelection when the pandemic struck in act-of-God suddenness, harpooning the surging Trump economy. That misses the mark. Trump economic policy, steered by treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin and National Economic Council director Larry Kudlow, among other stalwarts, remained sound. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (Trump’s sole legislative triumph), deregulation, and other growth policies promoted work, savings, and investment, bursting the economy and the markets out of their Obama-recovery doldrums. The pandemic was not an economic collapse; it was a government-directed suspension of a healthy economy that remained poised to recover when the restraints came off. In truth, COVID’s coup de grâce was to frame in sharp relief the president’s personal flaws. We got whininess about how the pandemic affected his election prospects and the unfairness of it all, when crisis is a time for American presidents to exhibit confidence and selfless resolve. Trump persistently understated the threat, especially the time and effort it would take to get ahead of it (which is still a battle). What the public most needed was frank, non-hysterical, non-self-interested information from a president projecting calm competence.
At the most critical time, amid crisis and an election year, Trump came up short on the modern presidency’s tests of rhetorical leadership and of being a good example of the American spirit. His administration, however, performed well. Vice President Pence led a task force that managed a catastrophe which would have challenged any presidency. There were missteps at every juncture, as there always are — from a desultory ramp-up of testing in the initial stages to today’s halting rollout of the vaccine. Yet the administration got the big things right. Its cooperation with state governments in the supply of everything from protective gear and ventilators to hospital space was impressive. Its push on the fly to improve therapeutics and treatments — notwithstanding the president’s occasional off-the-cuff meanderings about bleach, disinfectants, and UV light — facilitated rapid progress in learning to treat the disease. Finally, Operation Warp Speed, a Trump-driven initiative to put government resources behind private medical ingenuity, should be remembered as one of the great achievements of modern time, developing multiple vaccines in less than a year — with the president’s critics caterwauling all the while that it couldn’t be done.
That is the tragedy. It was a presidency that did a great deal of good, with a president incapable of shedding his demons.