Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2020.03.19

COVID-19 creates two co-presidents in the U.S.

the japan times on March 9, 2020

Right now, there appear to be two co-presidents in the United States -- one campaigning for re-election and the other governing the union. This was the bleak impression I got during my visit there last week to talk about Japan's national security policy at the Japan-America Society of Kentucky.

The creeping spread of COVID-19 infections in the continental U.S. has already made ordinary Americans, finally though quietly, panic about the potentially fatal new coronavirus. On the day of my departure from Lexington, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear confirmed the first COVID-19 case in the state and declared a state of emergency.

In Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe crossed the coronavirus Rubicon. Abe's administration has been censured for being "internally divided" and "failing to control" the spread of COVID-19 in Japan. Last week an article on The New York Times about him carried the headline, "Shinzo Abe, Japan's political Houdini, can't escape coronavirus backlash."

The Grand Princess, a coronavirus-stricken cruise ship with more than 3,500 passengers and crew, is reportedly set to dock at the port of Oakland in the Bay Area. Now it seems to be U.S. President Donald Trump's turn. The following are the reasons why there seem to be two co-presidents in Washington.

1. Trump seems unfit for crisis management

Since day one of his presidency, Trump, who was a great campaigner, has never proved to be a great crisis manager. Two weeks ago, Trump said that "there's no reason to panic at all," since the coronavirus "is being handled professionally." Unfortunately, that was just the beginning.

On March 4, Trump told Fox News anchor Sean Hannity in a televised live phone interview that the World Health Organization's global death rate estimate of 3.4 percent was "very high" and that it is "just my hunch" that the real number is "personally ... way under 1 percent."

Trump even challenged a recommendation by his own administration team for people to stay home when feeling sick. He told Hannity that "hundreds of thousands of people that get better, just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work, some of them go to work, but they get better." This is, of course, not the way to manage crises.

On Friday, Trump finally visited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, located in Georgia. Although there was growing concern about the rapid spread of COVID-19, Trump, while not speaking, looked bored and uninterested in factual details about the virus.

2. Pence appears somehow passable

In this sense, Trump made one of the best decisions last week when he appointed Vice President Mike Pence to head the administration's coronavirus task force. Unlike Trump, Pence, a former governor of Indiana, seems to know at least what should be said in a news briefing and what shouldn't.

What should be said in the midst of a crisis is simple. Everything must be stated clearly, convincingly and consistently. Since Trump has not only been incapable of doing this but also been even counterproductive, somebody else must clarify the administration's assessment and measures.

Since Wednesday, the vice president and high-ranking health officials of the task force have given updates on the U.S. coronavirus outbreak. Pence is not particularly eloquent but compared to Trump he sounds precise and professional. Pence also looks very decent, presidential.

3. Where does the buck stop?

A pundit wrote in the Friday New York Times that Pence "has taken on a familiar role as the president's political janitor" and "has long been a one-man political cleanup crew for President Trump." She may be right but what Pence has been doing since March is nothing less than the job of the president.

Now the Americans have two co-presidents, one for campaigning and one for governing. Despite all the inevitable criticisms against Pence, what he says is far more dependable than what Trump tweets or states in late-night live TV interviews.

This is a wise division of labor in the Trump administration. The problem, however, is that it is unclear who bears ultimate responsibility in the critical decision-making process. It is especially problematic if only the junior co-president tells the truth in a clear, convincing and consistent manner.

4. Lessons for Japan?

Fortunately, Tokyo doesn't have co-prime ministers. Everybody knows the buck stops with the prime minister, who is ultimately responsible in crises. He neither calls news reports "fake news" nor gives long exclusive live TV telephone interviews late at night only to a conservative TV channel.

Japan's problem is a lack of crisis management system in times of national emergency. In crises like the COVID-19 outbreak, what we need is not only a stating of the facts with sound judgment but also an organ or a headquarters to oversee and manage the entire operation.

Although full respect goes to the doctors, nurses and other medical experts involved, their crisis management skills cannot be taken for granted. What Tokyo badly needs is new legislation to establish and authorize a new entity to flexibly enforce necessary mandatory measures to contain and control epidemics.

What we also need in such crises is a leader who tells the facts with sound judgment. Thank God, so far, Japan doesn't have a prime minister who tweets and circulates uncertain information or personal wishful thinking only for his re-election campaign.

In Kentucky I tried to watch and compare Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNN in turn whenever possible. I felt as if there were two or three completely different nations inside the country. The U.S. that I knew when I lived there in the 1990s is gone.