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An Open Letter to George W. Bush and Barack Obama

America needs your leadership now—more than ever.
March 27, 2020
An Open Letter to George W. Bush and Barack Obama

Dear President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama,

The moment you have sought to avoid for nearly four years is here. We are witnessing one of the worst crises to ever confront the United States and one of the worst government failures in the history of the country you served and love.

Together, you have a collective 16 years as president, during which you dealt with a number of crises: the September 11 attacks, two wars, the collapse of the financial system, and the Ebola and H1N1 outbreaks. Faced with these events, you marshaled the vast forces of our government, trusted our best experts, told hard truths, led capable teams on complex missions to tackle these emergencies, and called upon our citizens to unite in patriotic spirit to ride out the storm together. Neither of you were perfect presidents—you both would be the first to admit that—and you each have your detractors.

But both of you knew what the job of the president is in times of crisis and how to manage the basic blocking and tackling of government responses.

President Donald Trump has now proven what many of us long suspected: He has not done any of this, because he cannot do it. He lacks the most basic capabilities required of a president in this moment.

America doesn’t just deserve better. We need better.

And you can help.

This is the time for you to join forces and publicly demand that the government create a plan to manage the COVID-19 outbreak.

The United States is now a worldwide epicenter for the virus. We have outpaced the rest of the world even though we had a long lead time to prepare for it and were one of the last large countries to be struck by it.

But the scariest part is that we are leading the world in total number of cases and the wave has still not crested here: The pace of infections is still accelerating.

These are not political talking points. They are facts. Because COVID-19 doesn’t care where you live in or what party you vote for. In a pandemic, there are no red or blue states—only infected states.

These facts have developed for one reason and one reason only: They are the catastrophic consequences of President Trump’s leadership. He denied the threat the virus posed for weeks. He ignored months—years—worth of warnings and calls to action to move faster on testing capacity and to stockpile essential medical supplies.

And even now, with the evidence of his failure everywhere around us, President Trump continues to push for an arbitrary, dangerous end to the suppression measures which have been enacted by state and local authorities.

You both know that Trump’s response has failed and that continued failure could result in damage which will extend not for years, but decades, to come.

So it is time for you to step forward publicly, rally Americans of both parties to heed the recommendations of public health officials, and demand that the current executive leadership do better.

I know you are both loathe to do this and believe that former presidents should not criticize sitting presidents. Under nearly every other circumstance, that impulse is a wise one. But in this particular situation there is an ongoing disaster where a course-change by the current leadership could effect a material change in America’s outcome. And the only two men in America with enough moral and political leverage to make a difference are the two of you.

Please do not wait another day.

President Obama, you have tweeted encouraging messages about social distancing, which were clearly meant to counter Trump’s sudden case of Social Distancing Disgust. That was helpful, but not enough.

President Bush, you don’t tweet. (And God bless you for that. May you be a beacon to the world on this score.)

But what we need from the two of you is more than tweeting. We need you to publicly stand together and speak out.

Yes, we know President Trump will be dismissive of anything you recommend. As he said recently, he hasn’t reached out to his predecessors because he doesn’t think he would “learn much.” But it may prompt him, begrudgingly, to act—if for no other reason than to want to control the optics of looking like he’s doing something.

For now, Trump is basking in his mother’s milk—polling—which shows the public approves of his handling of the outbreak. These have convinced him that all is well. But what the polls don’t tell—and what the current numbers of diagnosed cases do tell—is what’s coming next.

President Trump plans to “revise” social distancing guidelines next week to “open up” economic activity in places he would like to classify as “low risk.” He has telegraphed that shelter-in-place restrictions—which seem to be working in slowing the progress of the virus—are a plot to defeat him at the polls in November.

On Wednesday he tweeted that “The LameStream media is the dominant force in trying to get me to keep our Country closed as long as possible in the hope it will be detrimental to my election success. The real people want to get back to work ASAP.”

On Thursday he claimed that “the mortality rate is way, way down.” It’s unclear what he means by this—precise language is not his strong suit—because we don’t have a clear handle on the mortality rate from COVID-19. There seem to a number of deaths occurring from coronavirus-like symptoms that aren’t being classified as COVID-19 deaths because the patients weren’t tested. Further, the mortality rate varies by age and by access to healthcare. You are more likely to die from COVID-19 in a setting where healthcare resources are maxed out than if you are the only case in the hospital ward.

What we do know is that the total number of “official” deaths will soon eclipse the number of Americans killed on 9/11.

As that number continues to increase—including in states which Trump hopes to carry in November—he may reverse course and tell those “real people” to stay home instead of go back to work. You could help both to focus his mind and give him cover on this.

If Trump could be forced to focus more on the pace of infection, instead of the stock market, he would. But as our infection and death curves spike in the days to come, don’t assume that Trump can focus on the right data.

Neither should you not take comfort in the hope that those around the president will help him do what’s necessary. We cannot count on them. We have all watched as they continue to tolerate his purposeful negligence in this crisis—a combination of magical thinking, denial, impatience, political calculation, and lies.

The posture of the president’s abettors seems to be that he will get it, soon. But he may not, and waiting in hope that he will next week, or the week after, is a dangerous gamble.

What you—and only you—can do is outline a national plan of action, rally public support to it, and force President Trump’s hand.

You can determine the exact specifics of the plan by working with public health experts and economists. It would likely involve a national lockdown for some weeks—the final duration of which to be determined by (1) the infection data and (2) the completion of a nationwide testing system. The lockdown should probably not be eased until we have a testing regime that can easily identify infected people so that they may self-quarantine and also be running random sampling so that we can identify potential hotspots before they flare up. Also: The lockdown should probably not be eased until the supply lines of PPE and other essential healthcare materials are moving efficiently.

The intricacies of epidemiology may be too complicated for the average voter to grasp, but the basic plan for fighting the spread of an epidemic is not.

If you create a plan, and rally support for it among the general public, then you can create the a groundswell of support for it which can then carry Trump into executing it. This need not be done in an adversarial manner. In a perfect world, you two can do the work that he has not been capable of and then give him the space to take ownership of it.

Trump’s own current posture remains both foolish and inhumane. Trump recently remarked that state governors “have to treat us well” if they want help, as if he were a mafia don brokering the allocation of sanitation contracts between his underlings and not a president trying to save the lives of American citizens.

Meanwhile, governors in ravaged states are begging for ventilators that experts estimate we will need roughly a million of, despite the current national inventory of only 200,000. Public health officials also tell the New York Times that a centralized government effort is needed to “referee” the allocation of ventilators to places in the most need, as well as bidding for newly produced ones.

Yet while Trump signed legislation to invoke the Defense Protection Act, he has yet to trigger it. It is mystifying why he has declined to use the available power to supercharge our supplies in the face of such dramatic shortfalls. For instance, New York state requested 30,000 ventilators; the government, provided 4,000 of them. This week more than 100 former national security officials from both parties called upon President Trump to mobilize the law “to the full extent” to provide masks, tests, ventilators, and other critical supplies and equipment, stating the private sector “lacks the ability to process incoming requests, prioritize the most urgent needs and coordinate with other companies absent more concerted government involvement.” In spite of all of these urgent messages and requests and reports from the frontlines of our crushed health care system Trump still questioned the amount of ventilators governors are asking for in an interview with Sean Hannity Thursday.

Outlining a pathway to fix these critical supply chains should be part of your plan, too.

Both of you saw your predecessors working together in their post-presidencies to return to service: George Herbert Walker Bush and Bill Clinton not only raised millions for Asian Tsunami recovery but for the victims of Hurricane Katrina as well. When people were in need, Bush and Clinton stepped back into the public square to help.

Americans are in dire need today. And even though Donald Trump may not want your help, he can’t stop you from proposing plans and uniting Americans in shared interest to meet needs that aren’t being met.

Unlike congressional Republicans, who fear Trump and want to please him, you are former presidents of the United States. I suspect that at one point or another the two of you have discussed Trump and are likely of one mind on his administration. Over the last four years you have stayed silent on the subject, for many reasons—most of them good and wise.

But in the face of so much death and destruction—some of which has already happened; much of which is still to come—there are no good reasons for you to be quiet now.

America needs you. And even though he does not realize it, so does President Trump.

A.B. Stoddard

A.B. Stoddard is a columnist at The Bulwark. Previously, she was associate editor and columnist at RealClearPolitics.