NASHVILLE, Ind. — Forty-one years ago as the U.S. reeled from oil shocks and long lines of cars just to get gas, the conservative tabloid New York Post editorialized: "Independence Day, 1979 the American paradox is bleakly apparent. As a nation, we appear to have become steadily more dependent on forces seemingly beyond our control, losing confidence in our ability to master events, uncertain of our direction."
Out on the left coast, the Los Angeles Times observed: "The United States is now a victim of a loss of nerve and will, wracked by indecision and groping for a glimpse of inspirational and innovative leadership."
That was the precursor to what became known as President Jimmy Carter's "malaise speech." After disappearing for over a week, Carter told the nation in a televised address that July, "The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation."
That's where we are as a nation now. The invisible enemy is COVID-19, with cases up 82% from two weeks ago. The European Union, which has been reporting about 5,000 cases a day (compared to more than 50,000 in the U.S. on Wednesday) banned Americans from traveling there earlier this week. Dr. Anthony Fauci predicted 100,000 new cases a day in the coming weeks as the nation is going “in the wrong direction.”
A Pew Research Poll revealed that as the United States "simultaneously struggles with a pandemic, an economic recession and protests about police violence and racial justice, the share of the public saying they are satisfied with the way things are going in the country has plummeted from 31% in April, during the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, to just 12%. Anger and fear are widespread."
Folks, this is due to an abject failure of leadership.
An overwhelming majority of Hoosiers and Americans spent three months staying home, keeping up with Grandma on the phone, and shuttering businesses in a crippling way. And what do we have to show for it?
Goldman Sachs estimated that widespread use of masks would save the American economy at estimated $1 trillion. “If a face mask mandate meaningfully lowers coronavirus infections, it could be valuable not only from a public health perspective but also from an economic perspective because it could substitute for renewed lockdowns that would otherwise hit GDP,” the researchers wrote.
“There has to be a clear coherent sustained communication, and that has absolutely not happened,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases specialist at Vanderbilt University, told the New York Times.
It’s appalling that this pandemic has become political, over something as simple as the wearing of face masks, which President Trump equated to a “signal of disapproval” of him.
Vice President Mike Pence, who appeared at an indoor rally in Arizona last week with few in attendance wearing masks or social distancing, said in another hotspot state in Texas, "Wear a mask wherever it's indicated or wherever you're not able to practice the kind of social distancing that would prevent the spread of the coronavirus."
But it took Pence months to say that. And the coronavirus task force he heads has pretty much disappeared during this resurgence.
A spike in cases in Evansville this past week had health officials searching for answers. The Courier & Press reported on a Vanderburgh County Health Department probe of the outbreak: 64% — 37 of the new 58 infected individuals — were between the ages of 18 and 35; 16 of the 58 infected persons had traveled outside Indiana, with several visiting identified hotspots in Florida. "A large majority of these new cases reported to the health department that they were not wearing a fabric facial covering/mask when in public and they were not practicing social distancing," it stated.
When Fox News' Sean Hannity asked Trump what his priorities would be for a second term, he responded: “I always say talent is more important than experience. I’ve always said that. But the word experience is a very important word. It’s a very important meaning. I never did this before; I never slept over in Washington. I was in Washington I think 17 times, all of the sudden, I’m the president of the United States. You know the story, I’m riding down Pennsylvania Avenue with our first lady and I say, ‘This is great.’ But I didn’t know very many people in Washington, it wasn’t my thing. I was from Manhattan, from New York. Now I know everybody. And I have great people in the administration. You make some mistakes, like you know an idiot like (John) Bolton, all he wanted to do is drop bombs on everybody. You don’t have to drop bombs on everybody. You don’t have to kill people.”
President Carter knew he was in trouble when he gave his "malaise speech," which was initially well received before giving way to widespread skepticism and ultimately proved to be a harbinger to his landslide reelection defeat in 1980 to Ronald Reagan, who became the strongest president of the television age of American politics.
And Trump? He seems oblivious. On Wednesday, he actually said of the pandemic, “I think at some point I think it's going to disappear, I hope."
The critical question facing American voters today as the COVID death toll mounts is whether and how Joe Biden can frame what is missing at this moment: Cogent leadership and the ability to unite a frightened public.
The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.