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The Big Picture: Projecting Confidence


September 14, 2020

It was revealed this week that, according to journalist Bob Woodward’s new book, Rage, President Trump knew the potential severity of the coronavirus back in early February.

"This is deadly stuff," the president said in a recorded interview Feb. 7. "You just breathe the air, and that's how it's passed. And so that's a very tricky one. That's a very delicate one. It's also more deadly than even your strenuous flu."

Yet, Trump would go on to publicly and continuously downplay the virus, saying it would “disappear” and that people should stay “calm.” Explaining why he did so, Trump said Thursday, “We had to show leadership, and leadership is all about confidence.”

But contrast that with how past presidents have delivered sobering news to Americans, believing they could handle it and then aimed to inspire. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for example, on Dec. 8, 1941, a day after the Pearl Harbor attack: “I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost.”

Toward the end of his address, FDR added, “Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger. With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us God.”

Coronavirus was an FDR moment for Trump — to seriously convey the truth and then try to breed confidence in a way forward. For many Americans, he didn’t do that. Politically, what Trump didn’t seem to understand is that if he had leveled with the public from the beginning, delivered the bad news, but appeared to be listening to experts and offering a good-faith way forward, it would have likely helped his political standing.

Just look at the difference between Trump’s approval rating during these past several months versus governors in key places who did deliver sobering news in an unvarnished way. Trump was trying to show confidence, but many Americans saw through him trying to be a “cheerleader,” as he calls it, in the face of mounting deaths. It’s why most Americans now disapprove of his handling of the pandemic – and why he’s the underdog right now in this fall’s presidential election.

— Domenico Montanaro, NPR’s senior political editor/correspondent


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