Government’s Mission and a President’s Role in a Time of Crisis

There are few fundamentals of what we expect from government and presidents.
The current team has failed them all.


I have written often that at some point a transformative crisis would hit the Trump administration. They would fail to meet it, with disastrous consequences. I felt that way from the first year of the administration and noted it early on at the start of this publication. I expected it would be something in national security that came calling. Perhaps a military conflict with China in the Pacific or a major terrorist incident. I did not see a virus as the precipitating event. But here we are.

Covid-19 has reminded this country of some very hard truths. A lot is being written these days about all this. Too much, in my view. A great deal of it wanders into science, medicine, and probabilities. This by authors who know little of what they speak. Disinformation stalks the land, some deliberately, some by carelessness. I intend to not add to that morass. I wish only to address two aspects, neither of them scientific nor medical.

But First, Reflections on Crisis as a Concept

We have all heard about the Chinese word for crisis. It is said to be a combination of the words for danger and opportunity. That rings true today. This virus seems mostly danger, but there is opportunity as well. There is much that is not coordinated at national and regional levels, starting with good information sharing in real time. Virtual meetings and events should be much more common than they are; out of this, we may boost such links.

The main points I would leave with you about crises are the following.

  • First, they are, by their very nature, somewhat unpredictable, at least when they will start. Figuring out what is happening is hard. Discerning the possible ramifications at second and third orders are a challenge.

  • Second, this is the iron test for leadership. Almost anyone can lead in good times. It’s when the challenge arrives that we find out what sort of leaders we have serving us. No one really knows the answer to that second point until the moment of truth arrives. The predictions for the Trump administration were very bad indeed. In fact, the reality is even worse than one might have anticipated.
The Mission of Government in National Crisis

The mission of government in times of crisis is not easy, but it is simple to understand. Government is the one element capable of coordinating all other elements. It is responsible to do so. Government is to provide structure, direction, priorities, and communications. All of this is less by fiat than by coordination and interaction. Much of the effort should be to reinforce local governments at the front lines of disasters.

One cannot overstate the communications function of government at times like this. What is needed is a clearing house of information. One stop shopping for other entities and levels of government. Clear, frequent communication with everyone. Share what is happening and where we stand. Fail this task and cripple much else. Give us an effective, two-way communication model.

We count on government to be the principle organizer, coordinator, and communicator. No other entity can fill these roles.

The Role of the President in National Crisis

The president also has many roles that are essential to the nation. One of these predates any crisis. That is ensuring the government is fully staffed. Staffed with high expertise. Providing organizations that are up to yet unknown challenges.

Another role is to provide guidance and prioritization of effort. This is a tricky matter, requiring some real brain power and one helped by experience. Prioritization means getting the right things addressed first. But it also means not forgetting other things that are important.

Such other things become crisis priorities themselves if neglected for too long. It is a natural impulse in crisis for people to turn to the leader and ask what one thing they should concentrate on. One of the roles of the president is to make it clear that “one thing at a time” is not a luxury we have. Set out what must be done first but keep all the rest of what is needed visible and addressed as well.

Equally important, the president must be the great communicator. He or she must instill confidence and make room for justifiable hope. The nation needs the president to be rock solid, confident, informed, and empathetic.

Compare for Yourself

So, how are we doing? Take a look. The first link provided below is of President Trump’s Wednesday night speech to the nation. It only ran a bit over 9 minutes. In that short a time, he made 6 major misstatements. The speech began a run on overnight trading in the markets. A 1,000-point drop on Wall Street greeted us at the opening bell the next morning. By most accounts, this was the worst such speech ever given by a president. Judge for yourself:

Compare that video with Joe Biden’s speech on the same topic, at about the same time. The difference is striking. No, make that stunning, so great is the difference. It hit the tone we need and had the facts correct. It laid out the challenges and offered specific proposals to make things better. In other words, what one would expect of a president. It turns out that having an understanding of how government actually works comes in handy. Imagine that! Check it out:

Now What?

We can hope some things will get better. Local and state governments are stepping up and filling the leadership void. So, too, are parts of the private sector and nonprofits. Some elements of the federal effort are beginning to make progress. But the time wasted is gone, irretrievably. People will be infected who need not have been. It is likely the medical system will crash in some areas. Medicine will give way to triage. Doctors will have to decide who has a shot at living based on available resources and spaces. It need not have been this way.

A Closing Note to Republican Senators and Administration Staff, Past and Present

You knew the truth about Donald Trump. You knew he was incapable of rising to meet a national crisis. But as staff, you kept silent. As members of the US Senate, you gave him a pass – on everything.

The mess that is descending upon us is of your direct making. You gave him a pass and free rein. There are no adults around him, few real experts in any of this, and no encouraging path on the horizon.

You failed this nation. We will not forget who you are and what you failed to do.

Bill Clontz, Founder, Agents of Reason       Bill Clontz

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2 replies to Government’s Mission and a President’s Role in a Time of Crisis

    • Agreed, although I do wish the voting decision had been made a bit more than 12 hours before voting starts. Still, easy to criticize from here! All this about the primaries really underlines the case for voting the way Oregon and some other states do. No lines, no hassles. Works like a charm.

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