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Only One President in the Last 20 Years Wasn’t Worried About a Pandemic

Every president for the last 20 years has predicted the eventuality of a pandemic and preached preparedness. Except for Trump.
April 7, 2020
Only One President in the Last 20 Years Wasn’t Worried About a Pandemic

1. Trump Ignored All of the Warnings

On March 30, President Donald Trump went onto the most important news venue in America, Fox & Friends, to defend his handling of the coronavirus outbreak. Here is a thing he said:

“Nobody could have predicted something like this . . .”

This is false.

In 2005, President George W. Bush was reading a book—this is a thing presidents used to do, because books often contain information. The book was John Barry’s history of the 1918 influenza. (We talked about it a couple weeks ago.) The book spurred Bush to start poking around to see if the government was ready to handle a pandemic. He discovered that it was not.

From the ABC News report:

[H]e called his top homeland security adviser into the Oval Office and gave her the galley of historian John M. Barry’s “The Great Influenza,” which told the chilling tale of the mysterious plague that “would kill more people than the outbreak of any other disease in human history.””You’ve got to read this,” Fran Townsend remembers the president telling her. “He said, ‘Look, this happens every 100 years. We need a national strategy.'” . . .

When Bush first told his aides he wanted to focus on the potential of a global pandemic, many of them harbored doubts.

“My reaction was—I’m buried. I’m dealing with counterterrorism. Hurricane season. Wildfires. I’m like, ‘What?'” Townsend said. “He said to me, ‘It may not happen on our watch, but the nation needs the plan.'” . . .

According to Bossert, who is now an ABC News contributor, Bush did not just insist on preparation for a pandemic. He was obsessed with it.

“He was completely taken by the reality that that was going to happen,” Bossert said. . . .

In a November 2005 speech at the National Institutes of Health, Bush laid out proposals in granular detail—describing with stunning prescience how a pandemic in the United States would unfold. Among those in the audience was Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leader of the current crisis response, who was then and still is now the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“A pandemic is a lot like a forest fire,” Bush said at the time. “If caught early it might be extinguished with limited damage. If allowed to smolder, undetected, it can grow to an inferno that can spread quickly beyond our ability to control it.” . . .

“To respond to a pandemic, we need medical personnel and adequate supplies of equipment,” Bush said. “In a pandemic, everything from syringes to hospital beds, respirators masks and protective equipment would be in short supply.”

Bush told the gathered scientists that they would need to develop a vaccine in record time.

“If a pandemic strikes, our country must have a surge capacity in place that will allow us to bring a new vaccine on line quickly and manufacture enough to immunize every American against the pandemic strain,” he said.

That was the Bush administration. And please keep in mind that all of this energy came directly from President Bush himself, who saw the dangers when others did not, who raised the alarm on his own, and who then rode herd over the army of officials and bureaucrats in the executive branch who worked for him.

The Obama administration created an actual playbook for dealing with a pandemic—the 69-page document is literally called a “playbook”—which they handed off to the Trump administration in 2017.

So it is literally the case that the only president in the last 20 years who did not predict that something like this could happen is Donald J. Trump.

I know what you’re thinking: He’s only the leader of the free world. How could he be expected to read books or study the work of his immediate predecessors? There are only so many hours in the day and he needs to prioritize time for the essential tasks of the office, like Twitter and playing golf.

Except that last night Axios got hold of memos written by one of Trump’s own top advisors, Peter Navarro. In them, Navarro raised the alarm about the novel coronavirus, warning that it was almost certain to spread to the United States, and pointing out that there were concrete steps Trump needed to take to prepare for the crisis, including banning travel from China—which despite Trump’s claims, he never did—and freeing up emergency funding for the stockpiling of protective gear and tests. Which Trump did not do until the virus was in full bloom in America and it was too late. Because the wildfire President Bush warned about had already turned into an inferno.

The first of these memos was sent on January 29.

On January 30, Trump said of the pandemic, “It’s going to have a very good ending for us.”

As of this morning there are 11,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths in America.

2. The Future of Labor

Over at the Margins, Ranjan Roy has a very interesting discussion of what the CARES Act may do to the labor market going forward:

A good friend who runs a couple of pizza restaurants started complaining to me about how the CARES Act unemployment insurance was so generous that he’d lose all of his staff. He had never previously done delivery, but had retooled his staff to launch a delivery service, and made a promise to not cut any hours or lay anyone off. After the CARES Act details were released, employees started asking to be laid off. . . .[O]nce I started to look at the math, it does get quite interesting, especially with regards to freelancers / gig workers, who are, for the first time, eligible for this. The key is the extra $600 a week from the federal government.

The nationwide average for unemployment insurance is around $300 a week in benefits. So in the past, filing for unemployment would give you ~$1200 a month. With the $600 a week injection, you’re suddenly at $3600. Assuming a 40-hour workweek, receiving unemployment is now the equivalent of a $22.50 hourly wage.

My friend’s complaint was that he would have to pay $23/hour to compete with unemployment which would kill his business. . . . Did we just backdoor America into a $23 minimum wage?

Later, Ranjan takes this to the logical conclusion:

But I shouldn’t be excited that we’ve effectively democratized corporate grift. I shouldn’t be celebrating that all Americans now have a change to try to game the system to extract as much cash as possible through a complex set of procedures.Wouldn’t it have been simpler to just give everyone more money, if we’re already setting up the $1200 per adult under 99k? Or just directly subsidize payroll (like the Germans) directly?

The answer is: Maybe?

My basic theory is that the river of consequences which will flow from this crisis is not knowable. There are any number of directions it could go and these will be contingent both on choices we make as a society, on events beyond our control, and on path-dependent variables.

One of them possible outcomes is that America moves in a much more pro-labor direction.

Of course, another possible outcome is that the leveraged power of capital increases.

I couldn’t guess which of these is more likely; but I would guess that a return to the status quo is less likely than either of them.

3. Let’s Laugh

Vulture had the genius idea to go to a bunch of comedy writers and ask them to come up with ideas for coronavirus-themed episodes of their shows. It’s great. Here’s Tina Fey’s contribution for a 30 Rock episode:

Tracy has already contracted and survived the virus (“My snakes eat bats and then I use my snakes to practice French kissing, so it was inevitable, Liz Lemon!”), so he would declare himself an immune “green person” and set out to help. Tracy: “Like Mister Rogers said, ‘Look like the helpers.’” So, dressed as a firefighter, he would volunteer his time delivering illegal box jellyfish to the elderly.

Jack would try to get Liz to go to the secret GE island off the coast of Connecticut: “It will just be the top executives, any wives under 40, and yes, Lauer will be there, but only because it was built into his deal years ago.” Liz refuses to go because of her desire to be egalitarian but also because everyone would probably be barefoot. Pass. She would shelter in place like nobody’s business and still somehow dodge sex with James Marsden.

Kenneth would be the most prepared, having grown up Eighth Day Resurrected Covenant of the Holy Trinity and observing its End of Days Countdown Calendar, which is different from most calendars. “For example, we’ve only had Christmas twice, but Easter is every four hours.” Jack would offer to buy Kenneth’s cupboard of canned chickpeas for a million dollars, but Kenneth would just give him two cans for free. “Hoarding is a sin, sir! Just like skateboarding or riding a horse you’re not related to!”

People would piece together that Pete actually disappeared ten days ago with all of the snacks and hand sanitizer from craft services.

Read the whole thing.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.