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Governing in a crisis like the novel coronavirus pandemic can define a presidency. What lessons does history have to offer as a guide? Judy Woodruff reports and talks to former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was President Obama’s chief of staff during the Great Recession, and the National Endowment for Democracy’s Andrew Card, who served as President George W. Bush’s chief of staff after 9/11.
Governing in a crisis like the current pandemic can define a presidency.
We were interested to ask whether history offers any guide to the present.
The president of the United States.
On Monday, surrounded by aides in masks, and as the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 passed 80,000, President Donald Trump declared victory in the battle to ramp up widespread testing.
President Donald Trump:
In every generation, through every challenge and hardship and danger, America has risen to the task. We have met the moment, and we have prevailed.
For many, that echoed another moment in 2003, when President George W. Bush spoke two months after launching the war in Iraq.
Former President George W. Bush:
Major combat operations have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
That conflict would rage on for nearly nine more years, ultimately claiming more than 4,400 American lives, hundreds of thousands more Iraqi lives, and fail to produce the alleged weapons of mass destruction.
President Bush faced major crises early in each of his terms. The attacks of September 11, 2001, came just eight months into his presidency and killed nearly 3,000 Americans. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in the summer of 2005, killing over 1,800 Americans and displacing hundreds of thousands more.
And then, in 2008, the housing bubble burst.
Former President Barack Obama:
I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear…
The fallout quickly became President Obama's problem. As financial markets seized up, major U.S. industries like automakers teetered on the brink of collapse, and millions of Americans lost their jobs.
A failure to act will only deepen this crisis, as well as the pain felt by millions of Americans.
2010's Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was the largest in history.
The United States condemns in the strongest terms this outrageous and shocking attack.
Two years later came the attacks on a U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and, at home, when a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School.
And, in 2014, intense protests erupted over the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Joining us now are two key figures previous presidents have relied upon during times of national emergency. Andrew Card served as chief of staff to President George W. Bush and he helped to lead the administration's response after 9/11. He is now chair of the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit organization in Washington.
And former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, he served as President Obama's first chief of staff, at the height of the Great Recession.
Welcome to both of you. It's so good to see you.
Let me ask you, first, is there really any way to prepare for a crisis like this one, a pandemic?
Rahm Emanuel, I mean, you didn't face anything quite like this, did you?
Well, not like this, but we faced multitude.
The difference is, this is a singular crisis. We faced a crisis of a Great Recession, two of the longest wars in American history, an auto industry and a manufacturing base that was going to collapse, and a financial sector that had totally contracted.
So it was a multiple series of dominoes that were crises across the board, rather than one public health crisis instigating and causing an economic contraction of unseen proportions, far greater, obviously, than what we faced on the eve of 2009.
Well, you're right. It was a lot.
And, Andy Card, you dealt with a lot, not only under…
I used to be 6'2" and 250 pounds.
Go ahead, Andy.
Every president has to deal with something that they didn't want to have to deal with.
George W. Bush had a number of challenges. Obviously, 9/11 was the biggest one, in addition to the Great Recession that started under his watch. But this is kind of a unique challenge for the United States, but it isn't as if somebody didn't tell us that it could happen.
George W. Bush gave a speech at the United Nations in September of 2005 where we called for the world to be prepared for a pandemic. I don't know when it's going to come, but it's going to come. And then he followed up with a major speech in November. It was actually November 1, 2005, where he challenged America to get ready to deal with a pandemic.
And he said, we don't have one going on now, but we have to be prepared for doing it. He called for Congress to appropriate $7.1 billion to get ready for a pandemic. He said, you don't know when it's going to hit, but it's likely to hit.
And that was a wonderful road map to deal with the challenges that we have today.
And, given that, Rahm Emanuel, what has this president done right, and what has he done wrong?
Well, look, I do think that the order they put out about what are the metrics for kind of starting to open up society and the economy were the right metrics.
I don't think what you would do the day you put them out, put out a tweet and say, liberate Michigan, liberate Minnesota and Virginia, and undermine the very premises of there.
I don't think they have done — and I think one of the things the president should be doing, one is, this should be a time where you actually aspire towards malice towards none, charity towards all, rather than the inverse, which is malice towards all and charity towards none.
I don't think he's brought the country united. And I actually think one of the great silver linings here is that the United States has discovered how much we actually all have our sense of community and neighbor. And a lot of times, we talk about our divisions. I actually would say there's — the highlight here is the unity and togetherness that's there, and the president should aspire towards that.
The second thing is, rather than not just dividing, I think the biggest loss and the biggest problem was, rather than in what every pandemic, what every crisis shows, deal with it fast and furious, we have been slow and sloppy.
Those first nine weeks were a crucial nine weeks. Rather than denying what was going to be a serious problem, rather than deferring, ignoring, even with intelligence and public health warnings, that nine weeks was a costly nine weeks.
So, Andy, what about these points, that when it comes to building community, and, frankly, when it comes to speed, this administration could have done a lot better?
Well, the president did a good job of calling us all to attention. We came to attention. I think it was a little bit tardy.
And I don't fault the president, because I actually think he was on it pretty quickly by stopping people from coming in from China. But I think the rest of the administration maybe wasn't really sounding the alarm the way they should have, because it was easy to anticipate that this was likely to happen.
And I know some believed that, but I think too many people in the White House maybe weren't heeding the call to action that was coming from CDC and NIH.
And in a situation like that, Rahm, how much of it is the responsibility of the man at the top, the president, and how much of it can be laid on the shoulders of the people who are working for them?
I don't — I slightly disagree with Andy.
The intelligence agencies, HHS, were giving the warning to the White House. There's a reason Harry S. Truman is famous for, the buck stops here, because nobody at the third floor at Health and Human Services can call together entire government with a sense of urgency like the Oval Office.
Andy and I both know, when you're the chief of staff, and you pick up the phone and say, the president wants, people kind of get focused and real serious. If people says, the undersecretary of Health and Human Services wants, hey, let me put you on hold. I will get back to you on Tuesday.
It's a real difference. And I — I'm sorry. The first eight — these first eight weeks, when the president said it would just disappear — and I'm not — this is not — I'm not trying to make a partisan point.
When it comes to pandemic or a crisis, Andy and I both know what you do in those first nine weeks, or first eight weeks, or first six weeks is crucial. And the slow and sloppy start is a — costly for lives and for the ability of America to move forward fast.
And that has been very costly to the United States. And the president owns that.
What about that, Andy Card?
The president does own it. And I understand that.
But I also feel that maybe the other people at the White House — I'm not talking about the agencies. I know the intelligence community was sounding an alarm.
But I think too many people maybe at the White House were not saying that this was a serious thing. Peter Navarro evidently knew it. I'm not sure how often he was saying it inside the White House.
I just want to finally come back to both of you on this point that Rahm touched on earlier.
And that is the role of the president in inspiring the country, in bringing the country together. When you think back to whether it's FDR in World War II or Ronald Reagan after the Challenger disaster, Rahm Emanuel, how — what criteria should we use in judging a president in that regard at a moment like this?
Well, it's part of the presidential responsibility to give the singular office a voice to the country.
And I do think we're united and ready to move forward, and he could marshal that resources. The president spoke for all of us, President Bush, on the ashes of 9/11 at the World Trade Center when he says, they will hear our voices.
President Clinton, in Oklahoma, when we saw the first domestic terrorism, at the ceremony there, he said, we will be by your side as many tomorrows as it takes.
President Obama, in South Carolina spoke, and when he sang "Amazing Grace," he touched a chord of our humanity.
And I think what's missing here, given the sense of unite — unity that really exists, that the president could actually take it to another level. And I think the reason governors are doing so well is because they see somebody that's trying bring us together and move forward.
And, remember, President Kennedy once said, to govern is to choose between bad and worse. And the president, in this case, in my view, is squandering a unique opportunity to bring the country together with a singularity of both spirit and mission.
And I think that is what, I think, is essential for the president. And I think he's actually falling short, which is why the public is judging him this way.
Andy Card, finally, what about President Trump on this question of inspiration?
Well, he has not been inspirational. He does have a tendency to listen more to rosy scenario as an adviser than the reality that, you know, America is strong, the people are reacting.
Governors and individuals are making a big difference to help, you know, bring this curve down, so that it doesn't overwhelm our health care system, and pay attention to what the scientists are telling us to do, to self-distance and be very careful.
But President Bush was right when he most recently said, a pandemic doesn't know a Republican or a Democrat. It's there for everybody. This is not a war against anyone. This is a battle against a disease that is all-consuming, and we have got to be all in it together.
So, don't divide, bring together. We can get through this, but we have to do it together. And I wish the president, the current president, would offer that invitation more, so that we could all say, this is our battle. We're all in it together.
Rahm Emanuel, Andy Card, two people who have been there at the White House in moments of crisis, we thank you both.
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