The Wrong Leader At The Wrong Time

Earlier this month I opined that Donald J. Trump was the worst president ever in our great country.  I have had nearly two weeks to reconsider that opinion and upon sober reflection I concluded that I was right.  He has only done more and more to solidify in my mind that he is, without doubt, the worst ever.

Besides demonstrating his total lack of intellectual ability or common sense by advocating for the ingestion of cleaning fluids to rid the lungs of the coronavirus (I hope that Mrs. Trump has child proof locks on the bleach cabinets in their house) and advocating for the revocation of journalists “Noble” Prizes (not a typo as he repeated it more than once — it appears he meant “Nobel” Prize but the actual award is a Pulitzer Prize in journalism), he continues to show a blinding lack of any leadership or organizational ability.  Perhaps we are lucky, in one sense, as his professed managerial acumen resulted in six bankruptcies.  A stable genius, indeed.  But then, what should we expect from a man that tells lies as easily as he breathes?  To date Mr. Trump told over 18,000 lies since assuming office.  Maybe that was cute, or Trump being Trump when he was holding his campaign rallies.  We are long past that.  Now, his lies are costing people their lives.  His response?  “I don’t take responsibility at all.”

We have no national effort to combat the biggest health threat to our country since 1918 and the biggest threat to our economy since the Great Depression.  Instead, we have a hodge-podge of fifty different governors trying their best to provide for their citizens.  Some are doing way better than others.  I live in one state on the East Coast so I cannot pretend to know what is best for the folks in the Dakotas or Kansas or Oregon, but we all know that the COVID-19 knows no boundaries and cares not about one’s ethnicity, social status or wealth.  The virus is truly an equal opportunity killer.

It is not an East Coast or West Coast phenomenon.  On a per capita basis, at the moment the worst hit county in the country is Lincoln County Arkansas.  The second worst is Bledsoe Tennessee.  Three counties in New York state are in the top ten but other top ten counties are in Nebraska, Iowa, and two in Ohio.

Yet, we continue to pretend that the worst is behind us even as the experts tell us the worst is still ahead.  Think of that.  As I write we are approaching one million people in the U.S. known to have been infected, roughly one-third of all known cases in the world.  The death count in the U.S. stands at 56,037 and rising, roughly one-quarter of all the COVID-19 deaths in the world.  Is the U.S. lacking in the knowledge and technical capability to fight this pandemic or do we have incompetent national leadership?

Now states are starting to loosen social distancing requirements and opening businesses, even as we still have a long, long way to go to attain testing levels that can sustain a prolonged effort to protect everyone.  In Georgia today one can get a massage but that same person cannot get a coronavirus test.  The masseuse cannot get one either.  What could go wrong?

Here is my question of the day.  Why did we essentially shut down the country in the middle of March when there were roughly 20,000 coronavirus cases in the entire country if we are going to reopen it when many of those states have over 20,000 cases just in their state alone?  How does this make sense  when experts — not Pollyanna politicians or wannabe “patriots” — say that we will certainly have a second wave of infections and having lifted our basic precautions, it will certainly be worse than what we have experienced.

Don’t believe it?  Look at what happened in the U.S. in 1918-1920 with the Spanish flu.  There was no vaccine then.  They practiced wearing masks and social distancing.  The parallels are startling.  Cities that relaxed their precautions had a devastating second wave.  That pandemic lasted two years with ups and downs.  There were three outcomes:  you died, you survived and gained immunity, or you did not get it.  Pretty much where we are a hundred years later.

Yesterday, Dr. Deborah Birx of the White House Task Force said that we will not rid ourselves of this curse until there is a significant “breakthrough” in medical technology in the form of a new type of testing.  Experts do not see a viable vaccine for the public for at least a year, a time frame most think is wildly optimistic.

Clearly, we can judiciously re-open some businesses as we learn what is doable and what is not.  Take small steps to see how things develop.  There is near unanimity that the only way out is a comprehensive, organized, coherent strategy to implement testing, contact tracing, and isolating those infected.  Period.  Wishing it away, willing it away, or pretending it’s no big deal does not solve the problem.  Pitting cities and states against each other does not solve the problem.  Mr. Trump complaining in his best Rodney Dangerfield impersonation that “I don’t get no respect” does not solve the problem.  It takes money, lots of people, patience, and a will to make it happen across the country.

We know what we have to do.  With no national leadership it is infinitely more difficult.

The Price of Imperfection

The numbers are difficult to comprehend.  100,000 to 240,000 Americans dead from COVID-19 if, as Dr. Deborah Birx from the White House Coronavirus Task Force said, “we do things perfectly.”

There is ample evidence that as a country we have most definitely not done things perfectly, and sadly I see little evidence that we will do it perfectly as we move forward.  As I write, the U.S. passed the 5,000 mark in deaths from the virus.  Most experts do not expect the pandemic to peak until late April or early May.  Recall that the day after the peak likely will be the second most cases, the third day the third most, and so on.  The peak is only a measure of how far along we are in trying to mitigate the impact of the disease, not an indicator that the crisis is over.

In difficult times is it hard to know what to criticize and what to praise.  How to stay positive when things look so bleak.  Does one leave criticism of our leaders out of the conversation because we need to focus on the future and not the past?  Do we dissect what could have been done so much sooner to lessen the impact on our fellow Americans or just deal with the present and see what the future brings?  There is so much that could be said but does it help?  I think so.  If we are to deal with the crisis as it unfolds then we need to learn the lessons it is teaching us in order to deal with what comes along in the course of events.

Good leaders enter the fray with a plan.  As I have written in this space before, no plan survives contact with the enemy.  One must be able to adapt and alter the plan as events unfold, which is easier to do if beforehand the leader has thought through possible outcomes, surprises, and has the resiliency to adjust to circumstances as they unfold in order to bring the right resources to bear at the right time.

As resources start to deplete, it is necessary to assess the gravity of the situation in each sector of the battle.  Some places may need more of one thing rather than another.  Some forces are not currently engaged so extra attention is given to the places that are actively engaged while keeping some things in reserve for when the battle moves to a new front.  Forethought, tenacity and resilience are called for in order to vanquish the foe.

I see that leadership ability with governors in New York, Maryland, Ohio and elsewhere. Mayors and other local leaders are showing themselves to be able to cope with the situation by thinking imaginatively and using ingenuity to face the overwhelming impact of this virus.  Unfortunately, it is not evident throughout the country.  Even as we see the horrible impact of the virus in New York, Louisiana and elsewhere, some governors refuse to tackle the issue head on.  Some put in half measures while across the river in another state very stringent requirements are in place.  Both lose out as people are free to cross state lines and they will seek out what they want where they find it.  Consequently, both states will suffer as the virus spreads when people from different areas intermingle and interact.

Likewise, as the White House Coronavirus Task Force claims that states and cities are getting the supplies they need, we see countless reports, most from front line health care providers, begging for more help in acquiring supplies to keep them safe and healthy so that they can take care of their patients.

All of us have learned a new language and new words that we freely throw around when just a few weeks ago we had no clue about such things.  PPE.  COVID-19.  Social distancing.  Ventilators.  Pandemic.  And on and on.  We have learned a lot but we have more to learn.  So who to trust?

Sometimes two things can be true at the same time.  For example, if the White House claims that they shipped 500,000 masks to New Jersey, it seems like a big number.  It is a big number.  But if hospitals in the state are going through 750,000 masks in a few days then it is not enough.  In addition, many hospitals in hard hit areas have already thrown out best practices in order to save PPE.  Gowns, gloves, and masks should be changed for each patient in order to protect the sick as well as the providers.  Most places now issue one set for a shift.  Some now issue one set for a week.  Regardless of the numbers the White House claims to have provided, it is clearly not enough when it comes to the front lines.  If our first responders and health care workers go down, the entire house of cards will collapse.  Unfortunately, PPE do not help them with the emotional and physical toll this crisis is exacting.  What are the plans to relieve those who have been on the front lines for weeks on end?  Where are the psychiatrists and psychologists to help them deal with the stress and pain of losing so many people they pledged to help?  These issues should also be addressed on a large scale.

It does not help when the president gets up before the cameras in his daily reality show and hints that doctors and nurses are selling the masks on the black market and that is why there is not enough to go around as he did on Monday.  “Are they going out the back door?”  “I don’t think it’s hoarding.  I think it’s maybe worse than hoarding.”

It does not help when the president gets up before the cameras in his daily reality show and says “I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators” as he did last week.

It does not help when the president gets up before the cameras in his daily reality show and says that the governor of New York should be “grateful” to him for supplying ventilators and that he hit “paydirt.”

It does not help that president gets up before the cameras in his daily reality show as he did a few days ago and brags about his “ratings” being better than “The Bachelor” while saying that some projections are for 2.2 million dead in the U.S. and “so if we have between 100,000 and 200,000 we all have done a very good job.”

It does not help when the president tweets as he did just hours ago that “Massive amounts of medical supplies, even hospitals and medical centers, are being directly delivered to states, to hospitals by the Federal Government.  Some have insatiable appetites & are never satisfied (politics?).  Remember we are a back up to them.”

Funny thing.  When your citizens are dying one expects leaders to pull out all the stops to save them.

Maybe if you give everyone a ventilator that wants one pretty soon nobody will breathe on their own?

Again, two things can be true at the same time.  But here’s the rub.  The hospitals, mayors, governors are on the ground and know how much they need.  More importantly, we are dealing with a situation that projects that upwards of 240,000 citizens will die if we do everything perfectly.  That same projection from the president’s Task Force indicates that it could be between 1.2 million and 2.2 million if the right steps are not taken.  The key fact is that the worst is yet to come.  It does not matter whether current needs are being met if there is nothing left for the future.  Governors and mayors realize that if they are barely meeting demand now, there is no way they can meet it when things get really bad.  On top of that, multiple reports indicate that officials at the Department of Homeland Security report that the national reserves are nearly depleted.

Why is the federal government “a back up”?  This is a national crisis.  Why are states, cities, and even individual hospitals all competing against each other to get what they need?  Profiteering is certainly taking place.  Governors report that orders they expect to have delivered get cancelled because another client offered more money to the manufacturer for the same shipment.

The primary function of the federal government is to provide for the safety and security of its citizens.  All else is meaningless if people are not safe or secure.

It is beyond appalling that the president continues to refuse to step up and organize our response on a national scale.  There should be a centralized procurement and distribution system.  There is an old saying, “lead or get out of the way.”  I think it time for the president to get out of the way.  He has a Task Force formulating the medical response to the crisis.  Daily he puts out misinformation, lies or revisionist history and uses the briefing as a substitute for his rallies.  Just stop it.  Let the scientists and professionals give us the straight information.  What they know — good or bad, what they don’t know, and what are facts versus opinions.

Set up a similar Task Force for procuring and disbursing the needed supplies.  Then get out of the way.  The military is skilled at logistics, let them handle it if no one else in the administration knows what to do.

This is a national problem.  While the media’s and president’s focus seems to be on the New York region, the fact is currently Louisiana has the highest per capita hospitalization rate.  The highest per capita infection rate is in Idaho.  A national problem needs a national, coordinated response.

On a personal note, please keep those suffering on your minds and in your hearts.  This is going to be a long haul.  Remember the first responders and health care professionals that so far have been able to keep this pandemic at a crisis level rather than a national collapse.  Finally, keep yourself safe.

Stay calm and wash your hands.

Business As Usual

It is with some disappointment, but little surprise, that I note that it appears this Congress is going to do no better than the last several in seriously addressing our nation’s needs.  The elements of a “do nothing Congress” remain in place.  Sadly, this seems particularly true in the Senate with 5 Senators running for president (currently one Democrat and four Republicans) portending that there probably will be more grandstanding and less legislating in the months to come.

Three examples (there are other similar cases) outline my pessimism.  They are the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the Highway Trust Fund (part of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Authorization Bill, known as “THUD”) and the Authorization for the use Of Military Force (AUMF or “Anti-ISIS Bill”).

At this point let me do a quick refresher on spending bills 101 in the U.S. Congress.  Authorization Bills set policy and funding limits for an agency or program.  They do not allow for the actual expenditure of money.  An Appropriations Bill is needed to actually spend money and sometimes, although a program is authorized, it does not receive the money — or at least all of the money — they thought they were going to have.  Authorizations have no real Constitutional basis but are the result of the way Congress has handled such issues since roughly the Civil War.  Appropriations are necessary under the Constitution in order for the federal government to spend money.   Authorizations usually cover two years (except for the Department of Defense which is done every year) while appropriations for all agencies and programs are done annually.

Throw on top of all of this that the Congress, and the federal government, are still operating under the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 — commonly known as “sequestration” or the draconian spending limits Congress set for itself to force a compromise, and then did not implement one, thus leaving those draconian cuts in place.

So what, you may ask?  First let’s take a look at the 2016 NDAA, and unfortunately, we must dig into the weeds a bit more.  In order to bypass the sequestration spending limits the Republican Congress proposes to put $38 billion into the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account.  The OCO is used to pay for war fighting and counter-terrorism operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Instead, the proposed bill directs the Defense Department to use the money (or at least a substantial portion of it) to pay for core costs that should be paid for under the regular budget accounts.  This is a direct attempt to over-ride sequestration for the Defense Department.  Why do this?  Because under the law, to increase Defense spending, cuts must be made in other areas of an already tight budget and the Republican leadership is not willing to do that.  Democrats are threatening to block the NDAA and the president is threatening to veto it for two reasons.  One, they think the hard choices should be made.  Two, and more importantly to them, they think there are domestic programs that need increases as well.  Part of the “deal” with the BCA was that all parties would suffer in order to force a compromise.  It didn’t happen and now, the Democrats argue, Republicans are trying to implement different rules for Defense than those that were originally agreed upon.  No one is sure what will happen in the coming days and weeks. Democrats do not want to look “anti-defense” and yet they cannot allow this budgetary legerdemain to stand as it will set a precedent that probably is not good for the long-term fiscal or policy interests of the U.S. And remember, this is just the authorization bill, they have yet to fully grapple with the appropriations bill that will actually spend money.

Similarly the Highway Trust Fund — used to build and maintain the nation’s federal highways, bridges and the like — is due to go bankrupt.  No agreement could be reached on how to fund it so for the thirty-third time (33!) in the past six years, a continuing resolution keeps it in operation until 31 July of this year.  The Highway Trust Fund was established with the Federal Highway Act of 1956 and resulted in the interstate highway system that became the backbone of commerce in our country. It gets its money from the federal fuel tax, which has not been raised in 22 years even though expenditures are outpacing income and our infrastructure crumbles. There is little agreement on how to continue to fund the program.  Many proposals made, none enacted.  There is little expectation that anything substantive will happen in July.

Besides being political footballs, these two bills represent many others that impact our economy and the ability to get things done.  Acquiring weapons, raising armies and navies and training the men and women to man them takes long-range planning, long-range contracts and long-range funding.  Building roads and bridges likewise takes long-range planning and funding.  When civilian contractors cannot expect to be reliably paid, they are reluctant to take on new work.  This hampers us all.  Most politicians agree that our defense is important (perhaps the most important thing that a national government does) and that our infrastructure needs significant upgrading and maintenance.  These programs also produce jobs, jobs, jobs, of which every politician of every stripe argues we need more. Just get on with it.

Not tied to spending is the dithering over the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) that President Obama sent to Congress in February to authorize our current military action against ISIS and other terrorist organizations.  It is now ten months since we began air operations against them.  Experts predict the AUMF will never come up for a vote. The most important role of Congress is to authorize the use of force by our military under the president as Commander-in-Chief and they won’t even take it up in committee, much less bring it to the floor for a vote.  I fail to understand why.  If the president’s proposal is lacking in some way — and several argue that it is — then fix it!  Pass your own legislation to authorize military force against ISIS and other terrorists.  Many (all?) of the fifteen or so (I lose track) Republicans running for president are critical of our current policies.  Four of them are Senators.  Bring up some legislation to get things moving.  To be fair, there is resistance on both sides of the aisle. Some Democrats complain that the proposal is too expansive and can get us involved in another Middle East war.  Some Republicans complain that the proposal is too restrictive and may preclude other courses of action should new developments occur. Okay — but I don’t see how doing nothing at all is productive. What it does do is allow the president to continue his current course of action — a good thing if one supports his policy.  Not so good if you don’t.  But the bottom line is the same either way — the Congress is abdicating its most important responsibility and has no immediate plan to do anything about it.

All I see is poor leadership.  All the way around.  Unfortunately, it is business as usual.