Two presidents, two pandemics, two comparisons


At first, comparisons between Woodrow Wilson and Donald Trump as presidents a century apart would seem misplaced. The only commonality was that both were confronted with two pandemics: the Spanish Flu of 1918-1920 and Corona/Covid-19 of 2020. The first came at the end of World War I at a time of great disruption and civil unrest in America with massive arrests under the Sedition and Insurrection Acts used to repress all forms of dissent. By the time the Spanish Flu dissipated, nearly 700,000 out of 106 million Americans died.
Thus far over eleven million Americans have been infected and a quarter of a million have died. But vaccines are entering the distribution phase. The world is not war. And Americans are not subject to deprivation of civil liberties for criticizing the government, the flag or men in uniform.
Wilson was an intellectual, college president, governor and an internationalist. Trump could never be considered an intellectual as a real estate developer and television celebrity. And his policy of America First and withdrawal from numerous international organizations and agreements put him in the company of isolationist Republican senators who rejected Wilson’s League of Nation and the Versailles Peace Treaty.
Yet, both Wilson and Trump had a great deal in common. Both were infected by their respective pandemics, Wilson far more seriously. Both were in denial. Wilson refused to acknowledge the Spanish Flu pandemic. And possibly as an after effect of contracting it, suffered a debilitating stroke. For the last year of his term, his wife Edith was acting as the de facto president.
President Trump also was in denial. He first chose to downplay the seriousness of the virus so as not to “alarm” the public. During the presidential campaign, he repeatedly claimed that we were “turning the corner” even though record levels of infections and hospitalizations were being surpassed every day. Given monthly production rates for the most promising vaccine of 25-30 million doses, with two doses required for over 300 million Americans, it could nearly two years to complete the vaccination program even if a second drug came on line.
So far, despite failed legal attempts to reverse the election results, the president has not accepted his defeat. Unlike Wilson who had many months left in office, Donald Trump has nine weeks. As Wilson could not accomplish anything, what might Trump decide to do before President Joe Biden takes office on January 20th?
Several positive actions could enhance the president’s legacy. First and most importantly, he could authorize the transition process to start. Denying the president-elect intelligence briefings and the resources mandated by the Presidential Transition Act is childish, petty and dangerous. The lessons of the 2000 election in which five weeks were lost before the Supreme Court awarded George W. Bush Florida and the election are relevant. As the 9/11 Commission tartly concluded, that delay hurt the transition and the nation.
Second, in 2016 when Trump took office, the State of the Union was sound. President Obama extended the president-elect every courtesy. And, required by law, the new team was briefed on potential crises including a pandemic. President Trump could emulate that and especially refrain from taking any actions such as ordering a hasty, year’s end exit from Afghanistan or signing executive orders that will complicate the next administration’s agenda possibly restricting its options.
Third, President Trump could be gracious and begin the process of closing the huge political divides and animosities that divide America and both parties.
Readers can decide what of the above is likely or fantasy. In that regard, the best outcome would be for President Trump to emulate Woodrow Wilson and purposely incapacitate himself over the coming weeks by refraining from making decisions unless a crisis intervenes. That extends to firing senior appointees that his thirty-year old director of personnel believes are insufficiently loyal to the president or who need to be punished for past transgressions.
President-elect Biden has enough on his plate. Ironically, when he and President Barack Obama took office four years ago, both were dealt the worst hand of any president since FDR and the Great Depression. The financial meltdown of 2008 and two unwinnable wars topped the list of those challenges.
By comparison, 2009 seemed like the good old days. Covid-19, economic distress, two endless wars still in progress, intractable political differences, a hostile Russia and China and America’s international reputation in tatters are what a Biden administration faces. But will that make a difference? Or will Donald Trump do his worst to ensure Biden fails by not following the example of Woodrow Wilson and let someone else run the country for the coming weeks?