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Mr. President, don't pit 'the numbers' against our lives

By Clarence Page, Tribune Content Agency on

When I heard that President Donald Trump was getting antsy to reopen the economy barely more than a week into national restrictions to contain the spread of the new coronavirus, my mind raced back to early March and a cruise ship called the Grand Princess.

Remember that story? While the cruise ship sat off the coast of San Francisco earlier in March after 21 passengers and crew tested positive for the virus, President Trump said he would just as soon leave everybody on the ship. Why? "I like the numbers being where they are," he said in a Fox News interview. "I don't need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn't our fault."

Fortunately he also said that he would leave the decision to the experts who wanted to bring the passengers to dry land, even though he disagreed with them. More than two weeks after the passengers left, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study still found traces of the virus in the ship's cabins.

Also lingering is the unsettling memory of Trump sounding like he cared more about his approval rating, his own "numbers," than he did about the plight of his fellow Americans as their big boat turned into a giant petri dish of deadly viruses.

If Trump thought he was joking, the stranded passengers were not amused. "He can come on board if he wants," one told a reporter, "and serve us our food and bring me my towel."

Thus I am reminded of my great frustration with Trump's erratic leadership style. I look for positive things to say about it -- I really do -- especially when the lives and health of my family, my friends and myself are at stake. He makes it hard.

But that's me. As Trump's MAGA ("Make America Great Again") and KAG ("Keep America Great") supporters often say, that's just "Trump being Trump." When his supporters praise how he "tells the truth," they aren't talking about his reporting skills. They're talking about how, compared with politicians who weigh their words like lead bricks, he sounds refreshingly unfiltered. He loves to talk to any available microphone and release his inner Trump as if he has forgotten that the rest of us can hear him.

Such candor often provides content catnip for us media workers. But it became unsettling this week as he began to sound antsy about social distancing and other anti-coronavirus precautions that have brought the economy to a near standstill.

"WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF," Trump tweeted in all caps just before midnight Monday. "AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!" (He was referring to the national guidelines issued March 16.)

 

Well, we know which way the president's impulses are nudging him now: his "numbers." Until the current crisis, the president has always had the robust economy and "your 401(k)" to boast about. Now suddenly he can rely on neither.

Yet, significantly, as perilous as Trump's overall approval ratings may be, early polls show widespread approval of his handling of the coronavirus crisis. In a Monmouth University poll, 51% of voters say Trump is doing a good job dealing with the outbreak. An Ipsos poll the previous week showed 55% approved.

But how long will that hold up if Trump's eagerness to get people back out into the world of shopping and working outside of home destroys the progress that has a been made in "flattening the curve" of the virus's rapid and deadly spread?

I suspect that a lot of the support Americans have shown for Trump in polls is an expression of a reliable old American reflex: We rally around our leaders, regardless of politics, in times of war and other national disasters. Or, at least, we try to.

Unfortunately, our national politics have been more polarized in recent years than at any time since the Vietnam War or, possibly, the Civil War. President Trump, who unabashedly divided voters during his winning 2016 campaign, now needs to show he can put personal considerations aside long enough to at least look and sound like he cares about the rest of us.

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(E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.)

(c) 2020 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
 

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