Politics and governing can often collide in the middle of a crisis, especially when both hinge on what message a leader is sending the public. Given that we’re in the height of an election, the collision may have been inevitable.
President Trump delivered a primetime televised address about coronavirus and canceled political events, followed by a Rose Garden press conference flanked by public and private sector leaders.
The men running to replace him, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, brought forward their own coronavirus plans, gave their own speeches and also cancelled campaign events.
Political leaders are usually not medical professionals. But they play a crucial role in informing the public about crises, even while they attempt to advance their own goals like winning an election in November, a remarkably difficult balance to strike.
This crisis is different
For a sitting president, pandemics are unlike most other major crises, says one former federal official.
“These are complicated, tricky emergencies — different than a weather event, a tornado or a hurricane, different than terrorism, different in the sense that they happen everywhere at the same time,” said Mike Leavitt, who served as Health and Human Services Secretary to President George W. Bush.
This means that there’s no single site for a president to visit and assess the damage, and there’s no single city whose residents the president can comfort after the fact. Instead, it’s a rolling potential disaster that people are, for an extended period of time, continually trying to avoid.
More fundamental than any communications strategy is the need to communicate correct information. CNN this week counted literally dozens of falsehoods about coronavirus Trump had spread. And that was before his Wednesday night Oval Office address, in which the president got his own policies wrong.
It’s not just that misinformation could lead people to downplay or misunderstand how easily they could get the virus (or what to do once they get it); it also can unnecessarily stoke fear, according to one expert.
“If people see a disconnect between what scientists say and what he says, that in itself can create some anxiety,” said Emily Gurley, associate scientist who specializes in epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. She added that this also applies when announced policies — like the restrictions on European travel — conflict with scientists’ recommendations.
The point of showing that experts are involved in decision-making, Gurley said, is that leaders need to convey not only that they have good information, but that they are willing to change direction when necessary.
“If the situation is changing so rapidly, we need to be really flexible. So I would focus more on process,” she said. “That means that you have experts driving decisions about policy, advising on our collective best chance at mitigating impact at any given point in time, given the data that we have.”
There’s also an important balance for leaders to strike, according to Corinne Hoare, lecturer in crisis communication at American University who worked at the White House Office of Management and Budget during the 2008 financial crisis. She says the challenge is being honest about the seriousness of the situation without stoking panic.
Hoare points to President Trump’s attempts to downplay the seriousness of the virus.
“I think he in his own way was trying to calm people down,” she said. “But the problem is, when people are very outraged, just telling them that it’s going to blow over and it’s going to be OK, can actually make them even more outraged.”
Candidates striking a careful balance
There’s another difficult balance for politicians strike during a pre-election national crisis: how to show they should be elected (or reelected) president without appearing to overly politicize people’s very real fears and losses.
While their remarks were about raising awareness, Biden and Sanders are still trying to win votes, with a shared goal of defeating Trump. The two drew contrasts in their speeches but also held off on attacking each other.
Sanders devoted significant time this week, particularly in his Friday speech, to talk about his signature policy of Medicare for All in relation to the coronavirus outbreak. He also pushed for other expansions of the social safety net to deal with the crisis (like providing paid leave and, eventually, a free vaccine).
Biden seemed to be firmly pivoting to the general election in his coronavirus speech on Thursday. Ahead of it, a campaign official said the goal of the speech was to appear “presidential, not political,” and to “offer a view into how Biden will lead in times of crisis as president.”
But both men also more strongly sought to contrast themselves with President Trump.
“The administration’s failure on testing is colossal, and it’s a failure of planning, leadership, and execution,” Biden said on Thursday.
Similarly, Sanders took aim at Trump, saying in his Thursday remarks that “the current administration is largely incompetent, and its incompetence and recklessness has threatened the lives of many people.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign has been working to attack Biden, saying he made “irresponsible remarks” over the swine flu in 2009. As NPR’s Brian Naylor reported, that may have been in reference to Biden at the time contradicting official recommendations over the flu.
No matter who wins the election, they will no doubt be dealing with the fallout of this crisis after November.
“I honestly think that, like 9/11, this really just exposed how unprepared we were to the threat of our safety,” said Corinne Hoare. “It’s really shaken us to the core. And I think our lives will never be the same. I think, you know, how governments entities operate will forever be changed, how we interact with each other.”
It’s possible, then, that the lasting shock that Americans feel from this outbreak may mean politicians are able to make lasting alterations to the nation’s readiness systems. Mustering that political will can otherwise be difficult.
“Anytime you talk about a pandemic, it’s complicated, because before a pandemic happens, everything you say sounds alarmist,” Leavitt said. “After it occurs, anything you’ve said or done seems inadequate.”