By Mark Penn
April 6, 2020
Seventy-eight percent of Americans in a recent Harvard Caps/Harris poll believe we will overcome this crisis, and most believe it will take about four months to six months to put at least the worst parts of it in the rearview mirror. They are right because they have to be — failure is not an option, and we know it.
But our political system remains almost as divided as ever. Two-thirds of the public believes that our politicians are up to partisan games as usual, instead of doing what is best for the country. This is a remarkable number compared to virtually any other crisis. Typically, at least at first, Americans rally around our political leaders and align with them against an invading enemy.
In this case, a narrow 52 percent said President Trump is playing political games and a much wider 60 percent said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is putting party over country. A plurality said Democrats are acting in a more partisan fashion than Republicans. This is a serious deficit for Pelosi and the party she leads, one that could have serious consequences at the ballot box in November. The announcement by Pelosi of a coronavirus investigative committee in the middle of this crisis looks like presidential harassment, rather than helping people and businesses solve their problems. Rather than reach out with an olive branch to the administration, she is sounding an increasingly partisan note.
And it is a warning, too, for the president to avoid engaging in tit-for-tat political comments even when he did not start the rhetorical fight. He is slowly gaining respect during this crisis, but he has yet to achieve the kind of breakthrough leadership that other presidents have achieved in times of war or crisis. Both Bush presidents soared into the 90s in approval while fighting two different Persian Gulf-related crises. I suspect the real assessment by everyone is not now, but months from now.
To be fair, this president is in a partisan environment unlike any other that prevents this kind of unification into “One America.” Too many in the media would rather find fault with the administration’s policies and statements than advance the interests of a more unified country. To the extent Trump tries to pump some hope into the country, he is pounded with endless stories in much of the media, trying to debunk the use of hydroxychloroquine even though leading doctors routinely prescribe it because they obviously believe it holds some promise. They continue to destroy rather than to rebuild their credibility.
The political costs of the resistance and of the partisan breakdown of Congress, the media, Hollywood and virtually every other part of life are now laid bare as we deal with this crisis. They fractured our political system in ways that left it paralyzed and make it even harder to function effectively today. Hopefully, we will think twice before ever again wasting so much time on nonsense like Russia-Trump collusion and Ukraine quid pro quos that could have been devoted instead to solving infrastructure, immigration and health care, let alone pandemic preparedness.
In the end we were unprepared for what has happened, just as we were unprepared for 9/11. Administration after administration, over decades, gave lip-service to the possibility of a pandemic but made no real plans for all of the equipment necessary to be available — we had no effective early-warning pandemic system, no stockpile of masks, no effective testing, no technology alliance for safety monitoring. Even Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, initially thought this would pass without much effect. In short, we didn’t know what to do, and so we had no choice but to shut down society to save lives and to figure it all out.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, has had no role so far in the coronavirus fight. He has reached out for a call with the president, and I hope it happens: A cordial call between the two of them is a win for Biden, a win for Trump, and a win for America. It would show that politicians can reach out and bury their differences to get things done — at least during a crisis.
We did get a bipartisan stimulus bill — but it did include crazy things like money for Public Broadcasting and for the Kennedy Center renovations; the negotiations were drawn out an extra week, which was a critical loss of time for workers losing their jobs. Checks arriving today rather than 10 days from now would have made a big difference for many Americans.
We all know what needs to be done now: We need to beat the virus and get people back to work. There is widespread consensus that we need to get the number of cases down through our lockdown and, in the interim, build up ubiquitous testing and treatment regimes that allow us to go back with relative safety while we create a vaccine. These are still huge obstacles to reopening that will require government and private-sector cooperation as never before, or many millions will pay the health and economic costs that will continue to rage.
To get this done, we do need some optimism. We do need to believe we can get it done and that our amazing research scientists are closer every day to finding promising treatments. Yes, it must be tempered by realism and careful decision-making. We also need all of our politicians to stop the blame game and work together; we need our media to take greater responsibility for its actions that too often serve more to divide than to unite us. We need to be united as a country again on a common mission. We need to remember that, against this virus, we are One America.
Mark Penn is a managing partner of the Stagwell Group, a global organization of digital-first marketing companies, as well as chairman of the Harris Poll and author of “Microtrends Squared.” He also is CEO of MDC Partners, an advertising and marketing firm. He served as pollster and adviser to former President Clinton from 1995 to 2000, including during Clinton’s impeachment. You can follow him on Twitter @Mark_Penn.