The Speech a Great President Would Give Now

If we’re ever going to have great presidents again, we need to hold a space in our imaginations that a great president could occupy.

Ever since Donald Trump made his famous descent down the escalator to announce his candidacy (and assert that Mexicans crossing the border are rapists), we’ve been lowering our standards to his level. Once in a great while he does something so outrageous that his opponents try (and usually fail) to draw a line in the sand. But for the most part we’ve just accepted that he will do the kinds of things he does: ignore obvious facts, insult large swathes of people who have done nothing to deserve it, funnel public money into his own businesses, deny that he said what he said, respond to his critics with schoolyard taunts, and so on. We’ve come to expect him to politicize everything, admit no mistakes, fire anyone who reveals inconvenient truths, and confront everyone who comes into his presence with the choice to flatter him or face his wrath.

At times I’ve been as guilty of this normalization as anyone. Given a choice between letting a lie or injustice go unremarked, and distracting my readers from what I saw as more important issues, I’ve often just shrugged off norm-violations that would have been major scandals in any previous American administration.

Still, every now and then I think it’s worthwhile to ask ourselves: “What would a real leader do in this situation?” Not because I imagine Trump will listen to our answer, slap his forehead, and say, “That’s a good idea!”, but just to maintain our own sense of what is good and right. If we’re ever going to have great presidents again, we need to hold a space in our imaginations that a great president could occupy.

So I have written a speech for a great president to deliver in the midst of the current crisis. There’s no reason Trump couldn’t deliver it, and I hope he does. For obvious reasons, he won’t. I accept that, but I’m still going to put the vision out there.

My fellow Americans:

Every president faces crises and makes decisions that could either save or cost lives. I have already faced my share: military conflicts in various parts of the world; hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, as well as floods and tornadoes and the full run of other natural disasters. An economic crisis may not take as many lives as war or disease, but it can ruin lives, as people lose their jobs and homes and dreams for the future.

The current crisis, the one brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, is on a scale most presidents never need to confront. Thousands of Americans are dead, and some estimate that the eventual toll could be in the hundreds of thousands, or even millions. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are already sick. Tens of thousands of businesses hang in the balance, and millions of Americans have lost their jobs. Tens of millions are sheltering in their homes.

This is not only the greatest crisis of the four-year term I was elected to in 2016, but most likely it will overshadow the crises of the next four years as well. So whether I serve four years or eight, I believe I have already met the defining challenge of my presidency, the one for which history will judge me.

Public-health experts I trust tell me that we will go through the peak of this crisis in the next month or two. No one can guarantee what will happen after that, but I think it is safe to say that the most important chapters in the story of this pandemic will be written between now and the inauguration in 2021.

It is desperately important that we get this right. The decisions that are made between now and November or January — here in the White House, in Congress, throughout government at every level, and in homes all over this country — could save or cost the lives of countless human beings, and save or cost the livelihoods of countless more. When the stakes are this high, we can’t let politics interfere with doing the right thing.

And yet, how can it not, as we move towards the 2020 election? Already, both my supporters and my critics interpret everything I do in the light of that election. I deserve credit for this, blame for that — no I don’t, yes I do — it goes on and on. But none of those arguments save anyone. They just make it harder for America to move forward in unity.

When this is all over, there will be plenty of time to distribute credit and blame. There are undoubtedly many lessons to learn — both good and bad — from what we have done so far. But trying to do that analysis in the middle of the crisis, and absorbing that discussion into what was already a poisonous partisan environment before Covid-19 emerged, does not serve this country. Partisanship can only decrease the likelihood that we will judge correctly, or learn the lessons that might save us from the next plague.

Right now, there are many things I wish I could do for this country, but they are beyond my powers. I can’t banish the disease by executive order. I can’t decree a vaccine or effective treatment into existence here and now. I can’t speed time up so that we jump past the peak of the crisis and skip all the suffering Americans will have to endure in the coming weeks and months.

But there is one thing I can do: To a large extent, I can take partisan politics out of this struggle, and I’m going to do that right now with this announcement: I will not be a candidate for re-election in November, nor will I endorse any candidate in that election. Instead, I will lead the battle against this disease until my term ends in January.

The election will still happen, and I’m sure the candidates who vie to replace me will debate their views and their plans with all the vigor we expect from a presidential campaign. But I will take no part in it. If any members of my administration want to participate in that election, God bless them, but I will ask them to step away from whatever active roles they might be playing in managing our country’s response to the virus.

I cannot insist that others follow my example. But I can ask political leaders at all levels to do what they can to take partisan politics out of this effort. Most of us tell ourselves that we entered politics to do something important. Let me suggest that nothing you might do in future years from future offices will be quite so important as what you do these next few months. Lives and livelihoods are at stake.

Going forward, there are many choices to make, and I expect to hear much argument about what should happen next. A healthy democracy always has room for disagreement. But let those discussions center on the health and well-being of our citizens, not on the November elections, and especially not on me. My political future is already set: I will finish my term and then return to the private sector to await history’s judgement on my actions. I pray history will be able to say that I rallied a unified nation to take decisive and successful action.

God bless you all, and God bless the United States of America.

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  • EFCL  On April 6, 2020 at 8:57 am

    Thanks, Doug. We all know it will never happen.

  • Anonymous  On April 6, 2020 at 9:07 am

    if only……

  • James  On April 6, 2020 at 9:43 am

    I would add something to the effect that this will be DJT’s last word on the topic: “Going forward daily briefings will be headed solely by the doctors we’ve come to trust. All actions of our administration will be guided by their recommendations going forward.”

  • rtrain46  On April 6, 2020 at 11:46 am

    As my wife just said when I shared the speech: A great president wouldn’t have to say this speech and re-election wouldn’t be an issue… a great president would be all over this!

  • Kenneth  On April 6, 2020 at 12:03 pm

    Thank you, Doug. I weep at the contrast between this and what we actually have.

  • Wade Scholine  On April 6, 2020 at 12:12 pm

    What’s up with the “I will not be a candidate for re-election” part?

    I mean, sure, if Trump had any decency or insight, he’d say that, but if wishes were horses etc.

    Seriously, if this happened in 2011 would you expect Obama to say that? I mean assuming (safely I think) that he hadn’t completely whiffed the at-bat as Trump has? Or is this about T recognizing what a mess he’s made of things?

    • Wade Scholine  On April 6, 2020 at 12:15 pm

      Oh, and as long as we’re imagining things, can we imagine when Presidents no longer ritualistically imitate St. Ronaldus Magnus and his “God bless you all, and God bless the United States of America?”

    • AC  On April 6, 2020 at 12:38 pm

      I too found that odd. With regard to the election, I’d expect that a president would reassure the country that the election would be fair and secure, and that minimal amounts of their energy would be spent campaigning- that they would mostly leave it to surrogates. Did any past presidents decline to run for re-election in the midst of a crisis?

      • James  On April 6, 2020 at 2:50 pm

        Carter, Iran hostage

      • William W Brewer  On April 6, 2020 at 3:50 pm

        Lyndon Johnson in 1968, Vietnam

      • Dale Moses  On April 6, 2020 at 6:14 pm

        Carter ran in 1980 and got slaughtered. Johnson had just completed his second term and was not eligible in 1968. His VP Humphrey ran and lost. Neither declined to run for re-election in the middle of a crisis.

      • AC  On April 6, 2020 at 6:35 pm

        Interesting! I did a little looking with Johnson as a starting point. Apparently he would have been eligible for a second term, but pulled out of the primary on March 31, saying that he didn’t want to devote any time to partisan politics with American lives on the line in Vietnam.

        I found this archived news story:

        So that seems to be the model our host is drawing on in that part.

        Thanks to the three of you for your replies!

  • Dale Moses  On April 6, 2020 at 12:26 pm

    If Great Presidents are unwilling to get dirty then the only Presidents will be shitty. And being so above the fray that they refuse to run just hands the election to those who arent.

    Politics is a car stuck in the mud. You get dirty or you stay stuck

  • George Washington, Jr.  On April 6, 2020 at 12:58 pm

    It’s a Catch-22. If Trump was capable of giving this speech, he’d be a different man, the last three years would have gone in another direction, and we’d want him to run again to have the opportunity to continue what would be his outstanding leadership during this crisis.

    But then, if Trump was that man, he wouldn’t have run for president in the first place.

  • SamuraiArtGuy  On April 6, 2020 at 1:52 pm

    Very aspirational. I like it.

    I could imagine Jimmy Carter delivering it. Even the Bushes. Even Bill Clinton. But no one of the current political class. While there are still well meaning and dedicated public servants yet remaining, that caliber of leadership has been purged from our political system. And as you suggest, certainly not Donald Trump.

    He doesn’t talk that way. He doesn’t THINK that way. And he couldn’t even read this from a teleprompter, he doesn’t READ well. enough to get good enough at it to do it convincingly, or without smirking. He can’t even SAY it.. corona virus… He prefers the insult, “Chinese flu.”

    I keep bringing up David Roberts article in Vox from the campaign. It’s probably nly the best analysis of how he operates I’ve seen to date –

    “It’s not that Trump is saying things he believes to be false. It’s that he doesn’t seem to have beliefs at all, not in the way people typically talk about beliefs — as mental constructs stable across time and context. Rather, his opinions dissolve and coalesce fluidly, as he’s talking, like oil on shallow water. That’s why he gives every indication of conviction, even when, say, denying that he has said something that is still posted on his Twitter feed.”

    The question of what Donald Trump “really believes” has no answer

    And forgive my crankiness, I am originally from NYC, and Trump’s been part of our background noise for forty years. He’s always been “THAT F*KEN GUY.”

  • scotusjd  On April 6, 2020 at 3:51 pm

    I had a fantasy that when Trump began to take this crisis seriously he would gather all the ex-presidents with him to deliver a unifying speech about locking down all 50 states until the curve is flat, then restarting the economy with greatest attention to the most vulnerable–small businesses and the essential workers who got us through this. He has–point for point–done the opposite.

  • Marvin Fretwell  On April 6, 2020 at 7:42 pm

    Most of the comments have either agreed with the author, or nit-picked some small point. I think the greater take-away is just how far beyond Trump’s capabilities such a speech would be. We cannot even conceive him ever giving it. To give such a speech would require the president to have a heart and a soul, and a mind.

  • ecjspokane  On April 6, 2020 at 9:21 pm

    Absolutely, perfectly well-put!

    Eric Johnson
    Spokane WA

  • jmagoun  On April 6, 2020 at 9:21 pm

    My fellow Americans,
    It’s a real crisis that we are facing and no crisis has ever been bigger. I’m doing the best job to fight it – everyone says so, even the Democrats – but I’ve got to admit, it’s not easy. No, not easy at all. It’s tough, so tough, and people are going to die. Some have already died, even. And I’m getting tired of hearing the complaints, the unfair comments, the almost criminal – no, criminal really when you think about it – criticism from people who don’t know what it’s like here in the White House. So I – I… – well, just screw it. I’m out of here. It’s not worth it and it’s not like I need the money. I’ve done very well, very well indeed from this high office, and I think it’s time to move on. Good luck with the coming election, a tough one for sure. The Republican Party, or socialism like your worst nightmares. Just evil, they are. But it’s not my problem, and may the best man, or yes, the best girl, I mean woman, win. I’ll be rooting for you America, now that you’ve become great again, thanks to me. Good night.

  • Nancy  On April 7, 2020 at 8:49 pm

    A great article – thank you. I read everything you write.

  • frankackerman0617  On April 9, 2020 at 1:04 pm

    RE: The America We Need, NYT Editorial board, 4/9/20

    I find it hard to understand how conservative thinkers do not see that America is well on it’s way to some version of a Soylent Green future. The momentum for sinking in this direction grows weekly.

    During the democratic debates the country was presented with many proposals for a more benign future. Trump and his administration’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has forcefully illuminated the need for a change in direction. However, that such a change will take place in November is still problematic, and depends on only a small percentage of voters that are not presently locked in to either pro-Trump or anti-Trump positions.

    There is no dearth of proposals for what needs to be done to avert a Soylent Green like future, but implementing any of them depends on a functioning democratic process. Such a process rests fundamentally on the body politics’ desire and ability to engage in civil discourse and pragmatic compromise. I think it is abundantly clear that as a society we have lost this ability. Reviving it is job 1 for every citizen. In concept this is simple. It means just empathizing, and productively engaging in conversation with anyone who has a different position on a political issue than yourself. In practice this is difficult, but over time with repeated attempts, in can be accomplished. It needs to start now!


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