It’s Time for an Oval Office Speech on COVID-19

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It’s not a surprise that Donald Trump is in so much political trouble because of the COVID-19 epidemic. Normally, when something as serious as a pandemic affects the country, the president gives a formal, nationally televised address from the Oval Office, in which he explains to the American people what is happening, what his administration is doing about it, and how he thinks it will be resolved.  

Donald Trump hasn’t done this. Instead, he has said confusing and inconsistent things when he tweets, when he encounters the press on his way to the helicopter, or—much worse—when he hosted a series of media events from the White House in which he argued with reporters about the quality of their questions. It was, well, unbearable. 

From the fact that he has given acceptable State of the Union addresses, and earlier this month delivered a good speech about this country’s heritage in front of Mount Rushmore, we can discern that he has competent speechwriters and can read well from a teleprompter.   

So why hasn’t he made a formal speech to the nation about the pandemic that would make sense to the American people and restore some confidence in him as president? It’s hard to think of a plausible explanation, and the political pain he is experiencing now for failure to do this simple thing must have him asking the same question. 

Although the speech should have been given months ago, there are arguments why it should be given now. Although the media will criticize an Oval Office speech when the campaign for re-election has started, speaking to the American people at this point in the development of the pandemicwhen the polls show they are still frightened about the coronavirus and irresolute about what to do in the futurewould be hard for the media to ignore.  

There is much to say that could give hope for the future. There are strong indications that the nation is approaching what is called “herd immunity”—enough cases or other sources of immunity that the virus is finding it difficult to spread. That’s the best way to explain why New York and Italy, which were both ravaged by the virus, now have cases and death rates approaching zero. The medical community has a firmer grasp on the data, with the Centers for Disease Control settling on a death rate from infection of .03 percent.   

The recent outbreaks in Florida, Texas, Arizona and California are understandable as part of the same processa temporary burst that will eventually follow the same course, but much faster. The media, of course, focus on the so-called “hot spots,” ignoring the strong national downward trend in deaths that the president could show with a few simple charts. Such a speech would substantially aid his effort to make sure the schools open in the fall. 

In addition, judging from media reports, great progress has been made in therapeutics and vaccines. The president’s pressure on the science and medical professions for “warp speed” on the development of therapeutics and vaccines has been successful. We were first told that vaccines would not be available until early 2021, but at least two now appear to be undergoing the final trial. The president can take some credit for this, and it is probably unknown to most of the American people.   

Using this and other evidence, the president can point out that there is an end to this ordeal, that the death rate in the United States is still among the lowest in the western world, and that when the disease has run its natural course, life in the United States will return to normal.  

Without this assurance, it’s not surprising that President Trump is losing support. The polls show that large majorities of the American peopleeven if they are returning to work and to a measure of their earlier livesare still fearful of infection. They have been given no context with which to understand the significance of what is happening in the United States as a whole.  

As long as this is true, every idea that would restore normalcy anywhere is denounced by the president’s political opponents. They know that they have him on the ropes. By the time the virus disappears as an effective threat, it could be too late to rescue his presidency. The president needs to explain where we are, the progress we have made, and what to expect in the future.  

If he waits until it is obvious that the virus is vanquished, he will be returning to his home in Florida rather than his place in D.C.  

Peter J. Wallison is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He was White House counsel in the Reagan administration.

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