Fifty-two years ago this month, President Lyndon B. Johnson shocked the nation with a dramatic announcement: To avoid distractions from his efforts to end the war in Vietnam, he would not seek reelection.
Faced with the coronavirus crisis, President Trump should do the same. Forgoing a reelection campaign would let this president devote his undivided attention to battling COVID-19.
When he addressed the nation on television on the evening of March 31, 1968, a politically beleaguered Johnson outlined his hopes for a peace agreement in Vietnam and said he didn’t want to entangle the presidency "in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year.”
Then came this: “With America’s sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes, or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office — the presidency of your country. Accordingly, I shall not seek, and will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”
A similar declaration by Trump would clear the decks for him to address this crisis in a way he currently won’t or can’t. This president obviously will never admit that he left this nation unprepared for the coming contagion. Instead, he will relentlessly cite — and no doubt exaggerate the importance of — the one big decision he made in a reasonably timely fashion, restricting travel to the United States by most non-US citizens who had recently been in China.
But if no longer a candidate, a president now seemingly consumed with avoiding responsibility and blame could embrace the need for a federally led response to the crisis. Using the Defense Production Act, he could order companies to produce the ventilators and protective equipment so badly needed in this crisis and have FEMA oversee their distribution.
He could discard misleading suggestions about imminent vaccines or the availability of tests. He could abandon any political self-interest that might otherwise factor into a presidential decision about when to end our current state of economic suspension.
Most of all, however, he could establish what this country so badly needs right now: a de facto national unity government.
In this crisis, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York has emerged as the gold standard for leadership. Knowledgeable, cogent, and morally insistent, he appears vastly more competent than anyone on the president’s political team. That’s why it’s at least a little comforting to know that Trump has been in regular consultation with Cuomo. He should be the president’s role model here. Absent the political need for the endless rationalizations, justifications, and self-flattery that consume Trump’s briefings, he could more easily move in that direction.
A president who isn’t a candidate for reelection could also work far more closely with the House and Senate leadership, majority and minority, to hammer out the outlines of major coronavirus-crisis legislation. That arrangement wouldn’t cut members out of the legislative process, and it would establish a common roadmap for their efforts.
Such a process would create pressure for the three different institutions to converge on a common agenda. It would allow important things to be done more quickly and efficiently and with less rancor. And it would offer a sharply divided nation a consensus agenda at an exceedingly trying time.
It would also have several practical political effects. For Democrats, it would bring the manifold talents of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi into the policy-making process earlier. Given that Pelosi has repeatedly shown herself to be the most able elected official in Washington, that matters.
For Republicans, it would mean that congressional Democrats would share ownership of policies that are certain to be controversial and to create backlash, in the same way the bank bailout did.
And as for Trump? Well, with an LBJ-like declaration, a man destined for tough historical treatment could at least argue that he ended his presidency by putting the nation’s interest above his own.