One of the main jobs for any president confronting major crisis is distinguishing merely unimaginable options from the genuinely impossible. Indeed, history indicates that a president relying on gifted help and applying courageous leadership can take a problem that others deem unsolvable and — against overwhelming odds — make it go away. This is the kind of history that Donald Trump might have consulted fruitfully as the coronavirus seized this country — and his presidency.
Secretary of State George Marshall returned from a trip to Europe in the winter of 1947 and reported to President Harry Truman that the war-broken continent was on the verge of implosion. Food and fuel stocks were catastrophically low, disease was running rampant and almost every political system east of Lisbon was teetering towards chaos or the suffocating embrace of Joseph Stalin. The war weariness of the United States meant there was little tolerance for extending further scarce American resources to deal with Europe’s problems. Yet Marshall and his team of experts rapidly developed an aid plan of previously unthinkable proportions. Truman got Congress to adopt it quickly, saving a continent.
Many Americans will vaguely recall the Marshall Plan as a symbol of American post-war generosity. Yet few will remember how audacious or improbable it was. Where is the George Marshall in the Trump White House? And where is Truman’s bold resolve? The absence of that kind of leadership has taken an incalculable toll today.
Clinton had vision and courage
Just after President Bill Clinton was humiliated by Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution in the 1994 midterm elections, the president was approached by two of his senior economic advisers — Deputy Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and then National Economic Adviser Robert Rubin — with the news that the Mexican peso was nearing collapse. Based on their grim prediction, Clinton called in the congressional leadership and explained, “We’re going to have to guarantee some substantial loans to Mexico or Mexico could crater, and if Mexico craters it will have a devastating effect on America.”
Behind closed doors, the bipartisan leaders agreed with the president’s assessment. But they could not muster the necessary legislative support with their rank-and-file members to adopt a solution. The risk was unimaginably large. By the White House’s own internal assessment, there was a 40% chance that the United States would “piss…$20 billion down a rat hole.” Clinton decided to assume the risk all on his own, using creative executive authorities to guarantee the loans.
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The president’s action succeeded, averting an economic disaster of the first order. Yet few Americans today have any recollection that it even happened. Where are the people with this vision and courage in the Trump administration?
Bush team had wit, wisdom and will
In the spring of 2003, while the march to war in Iraq was a preoccupation in Washington, President George W. Bush was occasionally hearing from members of his health policy and national security staffs that Africa was on the verge of a ghastly explosion in the number of HIV cases. Because a diagnosis of AIDS was considered a death sentence in the developing world, infected individuals were not seeking help and consequently were infecting others with the disease. Millions of African lives were at risk, with an unknown domino effect beyond.
Bush quietly set up a secret group of professionals to deal with the problem, and personally issued this instruction: Go big. Relying heavily on Dr. Anthony Fauci at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and his colleague Mark Dybul (an openly gay HIV specialist who came into the president’s inner circle initially hating Bush and expecting him to sabotage the process), Bush devised an extraordinary initiative to get antiretroviral drugs into the furthest reaches of Africa at American taxpayer expense. PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief) was enacted by Congress over the opposition of a host of social and economic conservatives within the president’s own party, because Bush and his political adviser Karl Rove muscled it through.
It is easy to see the contrast between Trump’s use of Dr. Fauci and what Fauci was authorized to do under Bush. It is also easy to see the different outcomes.
PEPFAR was genuinely remarkable: over 18 million lives saved to date, because that president and his team used the office of the presidency in ways that to many seemed unthinkable. They had the wit, the wisdom and the will to make something unlikely happen. Sometimes, when it comes to using the powers of the presidency, that is the stuff of miracles.
Russell Riley is the co-chair of the Presidential Oral History Program and the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs.