On Wednesday night, Donald Trump delivered an address to the nation regarding the burgeoning coronavirus pandemic. In accordance with (modern-day) presidential norms, Trump peppered his remarks with misinformation and incoherent policy proposals. The president announced that he would be imposing a ban on travel between Europe and the United States beginning Friday, saying: “These prohibitions will not only apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo, but various other things as we get approval. Anything coming from Europe to the United States is what we are discussing.”
This led the public to believe that Trump’s prohibitions would apply to trade and cargo (which sent global markets plummeting), as well as to U.S. citizens abroad (which caused Americans in Europe to race to their nearest airport, where they congregated in the kinds of large crowds that facilitate the spread of infection before flying back en masse to cities all throughout the U.S. homeland). On Thursday morning, in keeping with contemporary White House conventions, the Trump administration clarified that it was neither suspending trade with Europe nor imposing restrictions on the travel of U.S. citizens.
Even as he barred Europeans from visiting our shores, the president stipulated a special exemption for travelers from the United Kingdom, despite the fact that Britain has more confirmed cases of COVID-19 infections than most European countries. Meanwhile, Trump made no mention of any plans to ramp up America’s woefully inadequate testing regime or to discourage public gatherings.
The following day, the Democratic Party’s 2020 front-runner took a less conventional tack in his own remarks on the crisis. Speaking before an array of American flags, Joe Biden declined to recite any falsehoods that could plausibly get people killed, or propose a single mindlessly xenophobic policy with inexplicable (and possibly self-interested) carve-outs.
Rather, Biden suggested that banning European tourism would do less to prevent the spread of coronavirus (which is already proliferating in communities all across the U.S.) than ramping up the nation’s testing capacity would. Specifically, the former vice president called for guaranteeing that “anyone who needs to be tested based on medical guidance should be tested at no charge”; that “every senior center or vulnerable population” has “easy access to the test”; and that there are at least 25 “mobile testisting sites” in every state. Meanwhile, Biden argued that increasing our hospital system’s “surge capacity” should be a higher priority than spreading misinformation in the hope of temporarily inflating the stock market. Biden’s other norm-defying proposals included: restoring the White House security council directorate for global health, developing a vaccine, providing aid to the unemployed, nutritional assistance to children who lose access to free school lunch, and assisting with efforts to combat the virus overseas.
Shortly after Biden finished his remarks, Bernie Sanders gave a speech on the public health crisis that was similarly unpresidential in its competence. The Vermont senator and presidential candidate seconded many of Biden’s proposals and sentiments, while outlining a number of novel measures aimed at aiding those most vulnerable to the virus’s economic disruptions. Sanders called for, among other things, a moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shutoffs for the duration of the pandemic.
Whether the American people are willing to accept such aberrant professionalism in their next president remains to be seen. In the view of the Democrats’ 2020 hopefuls, however, extraordinary times call for minimally competent measures.