On March 18, in the midst of a presidential news conference on the coronavirus, Donald Trump compared himself to a “wartime president.”
This president has never been shy about casting himself in heroic roles. But his attempt to adopt the military mien raised more than a few eyebrows under the circumstances.
When a reporter referred to the battle against the virus as a war, Trump picked up on it immediately. “It is the invisible enemy,” he said. “I view it as, in a sense, a wartime president.”
Some of the commentary that followed dwelt on how Trump sat out Vietnam, the war of his own draft-age youth, with deferments for college and then for bone spurs in his foot (a diagnosis The New York Times has reported came from a doctor who was a tenant of Trump’s wealthy father).
Others recalled candidate Trump saying in 2015: “I know more about ISIS than the generals do.” Since then, he has been equally flattering about his own strategic vision, saying: “I think I would have been a good general.” But the several generals who served in Trump’s inner circle in his first two years in office — including chief of staff John Kelly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Adviser and H.R. McMaster — are all conspicuous by their absence now.
There is, of course, nothing new about using war as a metaphor for a national mission. President Ronald Reagan declared a War on Drugs in the 1980s; President Lyndon Johnson a War on Poverty in the 1960s. In between, Jimmy Carter called the need to conserve energy in the 1970s “the moral equivalent of war.”
But if Americans are accustomed to such language, they also expect it to be matched by governmental mobilization and performance on a broad scale. So the deeper skepticism that greeted Trump’s use of the phrase “wartime president” may be related to his record as commander in chief battling the “enemy” to date.
Yuval Levin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, this week praised “a more intense focus by the president on the problems we face.” But he immediately worried that the president “has not been willing to speak to the public about the nature of the threat to the capacity of our health system.”
In other words, duck and cover is not a good look for a wartime leader.
First informed of the virus and its threat in January, Trump was loath to acknowledge it as a problem. He barred travelers from China on Jan. 31 (a decision he now touts on a daily basis, as he vilifies “the Chinese virus”), yet he also continued to dismiss the seriousness of the virus itself. And he maintained that denial for the next four weeks, a potentially crucial period during which the coronavirus was spreading throughout the U.S.
Throughout these early weeks of the year, there were elements of the government’s disease-fighting establishment that were scrambling to deal with mounting cases in the U.S. (amid reports of rampant infection in parts of Europe).
But even as March began, the public Trump was not entirely on board. He continually downplayed the virus, saying it probably wouldn’t amount to much in the U.S. and would soon be gone. Go about your business, he seemed to be saying, nothing to see here. And all the while, the virus was spreading and the chances of slowing and containing it were diminishing.
Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith summed up the president’s attitude this way in an interview with The Chicago Tribune editorial writer Steve Chapman: “He wants to take credit for D-Day without accepting responsibility for Pearl Harbor.”
On March 13, Trump gave in and declared a national emergency under the Stafford Act to free up various resources that could have been deployed weeks earlier. But in his news conference that day, he also promised a national Google project to link prospective patients to testing and treatment later that weekend. The company had to announce that, while one of its affiliated companies was working on a prototype of such a program, it would only be available in a few California counties.
Even in the past week, Trump continued to talk about a vaccine coming “very soon” and anti-malaria drugs that could be available “almost immediately” with a lot of promise for use against the coronavirus. It was left to Anthony Fauci, the government’s leading expert on infectious disease control since the 1980s, to ratchet back these claims — albeit gently and without criticizing the president, who continued to make the claims over the weekend.
The holding out of such hopes, and the continual references to defeating the virus sooner than experts say is possible, mix the messages emanating from the commander in chief. In one moment he says stay at home and save lives, in the next he offers an entirely alternative outlook.
When Americans think of wartime leadership, they are most likely to recall Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, the presidents in office for World War II and the Civil War, respectively.
In her prize-winning volume Team of Rivals, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recounts how Lincoln was able to assemble a Cabinet of men who had been his political enemies and detractors. One, the Ohio lawyer Edwin Stanton, had referred to Lincoln in the 1850s as “that long-armed Ape.”
Writes Goodwin: “Unimaginable as it might seem, after Stanton’s bearish behavior, at their next encounter six years later, Lincoln would offer Stanton ‘the most powerful civilian post within his gift’ – the post of secretary of war.”
Indeed, Stanton went on to organize the war effort that preserved the Union. In similar fashion, eight decades later, Roosevelt entrusted much of America’s war effort to Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall — later praised as “the organizer of victory” by Churchill himself.
Together, Marshall and Roosevelt would orchestrate the talents and egos of an exceptional cast of American commanders in Europe and the Pacific. The former included Eisenhower, whom Marshall plucked from a desk job in the Office of War Plans, promoted, and watched become the 34th president of the U.S. Various biographers of FDR (such as Joseph E. Persico in Roosevelt’s Centurions) have seen his style of management as essential to winning the world’s most destructive and consequential war to date.
Neither Lincoln nor FDR lived to see the end of their monumental wartime works. But they showed unmistakable qualities in common as they performed in office and then positioned others to finish the job. Both were masterful managers of other people, giving their subordinates power and freedom to bring their own genius to bear and playing them off against each other with interpersonal savvy and a measure of humor.
Eisenhower was the last general to become president. The first was, of course, George Washington, followed by Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Chester A. Arthur and Benjamin Harrison (the latter five all being Civil War generals).
Others with significant military backgrounds included William McKinley, a brevet major in the Civil War, Theodore Roosevelt, who led a combat unit (the Rough Riders) in the Spanish American War as a colonel, and Harry Truman, an artillery officer in World War I. Both John F. Kennedy and George H.W. Bush saw combat as Navy lieutenants in World War II (Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan served in that conflict in non-combat roles).
Somewhat surprisingly, only one of these war-veteran presidents ever asked Congress for a declaration of war (McKinley, somewhat reluctantly, against Spain in 1898).
The other presidents who sought such declarations were James Madison (War of 1812), James K. Polk (Mexican War), Woodrow Wilson (World War I) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (World War II). None had much of a personal military history, although FDR had been assistant secretary of the navy.
Declarations of war
In the past 75 years, the notion of formal declarations of war has gone out of fashion. Truman and Johnson sought and received the support of Congress for major U.S. troop commitments in Korea (1950) and Vietnam (1964) that became protracted and costly wars — even though undeclared. The onus of these conflicts contributed to both men deciding not to seek re-election, Truman in 1952 and Johnson in 1968.
The first President Bush got Congress to approve his military effort to remove Iraqi troops from Kuwait in what became the Persian Gulf War of 1991. That brief tour de force sent his approval skyward, peaking at 89% in the Gallup Poll. But the public soured somewhat on Bush when a recession began later in that same year, and he was defeated in a three-way presidential contest in 1992.
His son, George W. Bush, who served in the Texas Air National Guard in 1972 and 1973 but did not go to Vietnam, also sought congressional buy-in for major troop deployments after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. His first authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) was approved overwhelmingly in the fall of 2001 and is still used to justify various actions taken against what are deemed terrorist targets.
A separate AUMF was approved late in 2002 for use against Iraq, and this time the U.S. forces took Baghdad and drove Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein from power. What became known as the Iraq War enjoyed initial support from the public but became unpopular as the occupation of that country went on. Bush narrowly won a second term and his party lost control of both chambers of Congress in the elections of 2006.
In sum, the experiences of “wartime presidents” since FDR should be enough to give a successor pause before invoking that phrase.