When I worked for Governor Jim Hunt long ago, a couple of well-meaning management consultants wrote the Governor a memo with “Observations and Suggestions” for his administration.
It had consultant stuff like “Prepare a compilation of major accomplishments” and “Cement relationships and understandings with legislators.”
Then there was this: “Welcome a good disaster.”
Reporters got hold of the memo. They jumped on the “good disaster” line. The coverage was, well, a disaster. And not a good one.
I think of that memo when I see President Trump, Governor Roy Cooper and other elected officials standing in front of the cameras and wrestling with the coronavirus crisis.
The memo’s point was that disasters give leaders a chance to show they care and are in command. The unintended point was that you can also make a complete and utter fool of yourself.
In the early days of the coronavirus crisis, Democrats were sure that Trump was making a fool of himself. He downplayed it and said it would quickly go away. He lashed out at the media and his critics.
Then he changed course. He declared a national emergency. He said he knew all along it was a pandemic. While he still lashed out, he shifted into “Wartime President” mode.
Polls showed public approval for his performance rising, as high as 60 percent in a Gallup Poll. But both Presidents Bush had 90 percent positives after the first Iraq war and 9/11, respectively.
Then Trump said the lockdown should end by Easter. Now he says the end of April.
He knows his reelection hinges on how Americans feel he handles this crisis. (Remember back when we thought the election would be about impeachment?)
He’s on television every day, trying to shape public opinion. But public opinion here is extraordinarily volatile, because the crisis is life-and-death, it affects all of us and most all of us know next to nothing about it.
We spend hours every day online and on social media reading and hearing information and misinformation, claims and counterclaims, facts and falsehoods.
We don’t know what or who to believe. We don’t know how long it will go on. We don’t know how bad the economic damage will be.
We’re told it’s a choice between jobs and lives.
Governor Cooper faced that tough decision. Hospitals and doctors urged him to issue a statewide stay-home order. The Chamber of Commerce initially opposed it.
After what likely was a lot of negotiating, the Governor issued the order, and the Chamber’s president said it “supports this decision and is prepared to assist the business community in understanding how best to comply.”
On top of the serious stakes and the unsettling uncertainty, we the people are – as always – deeply divided.
Half of us believe President Trump is saving America, and half of us believe he’s wrecking it. Half believe Trump, and half believe Anthony Fauci or Andrew Cuomo.
Crises like this make and break Presidents.
The Civil War made Lincoln a virtual saint, after it nearly broke him. The Depression and World War II made FDR a legend, but he faced a deeply divided nation until Pearl Harbor. The Cuban Missile Crisis made JFK a hero, after the Bay of Pigs made him a goat.
The Depression broke Herbert Hoover. Vietnam broke LBJ. Katrina broke George W. Bush. The Iran hostage crisis made Jimmy Carter a winner against Ted Kennedy, but a loser against Ronald Reagan.
Early in a crisis, Americans tend to rally around their leaders. But they also tend to run out of patience.
And there’s no such thing as a good disaster.