Opinion | White House

A new type of wartime president

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

As the coronavirus has unfolded across the nation, Donald Trump is using the rhetoric of being a "wartime" president. Indeed, with the deaths from the disease surpassing the deaths during Pearl Harbor or September 11, this is a calamity of similarly historical significance. If the models of the medical experts become a tragic reality, then more Americans will die from this pandemic than in all the conflicts since World War Two.

But the United States is not at war with an enemy that will respond to our "shock and awe" military might. Until we can develop widespread testing, therapeutics, and vaccines, we will largely be on defense, something most Americans are unused to in wartime, and unlike current conflicts, we will feel losses across the home front, and not just among those who bravely volunteer to serve. The wartime leadership lessons from our history best applied to this crisis are the need for clear communication to the public, strategic planning for unity of effort, and the ability to convey a broader vision to explain "why we fight" the pandemic with all we have.

History shows us how Franklin Roosevelt and the first George Bush sought to communicate in wartime. The fireside chats by Roosevelt explained the course of World War Two. Many followed from home with their own maps to track the progress of our forces. As a coalition was built for the Persian Gulf War, Bush was frank about the peril our forces faced, while also clear on the limited aims of the conflict. Honest and sober assessments prepare a population for the challenge head, while history also shows how overly rosy assessments and premature declarations of victory, like with Lyndon Johnson announcing "light at the end of the tunnel" in the Vietnam War or the second George Bush displaying a "mission accomplished" banner to talk about the Iraq War, came to be slogans for wartime failure.

Unity of effort is also necessary to lead in a crisis. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln cycled through commanders until Ulysses Grant and William Sherman provided the unified strategy to crush the confederacy. As World War Two approached, Roosevelt worked with Republicans, many of them business leaders who opposed his New Deal, to revamp industry to become the arsenal of democracy. Competency mattered much more than political orthodoxy. Meanwhile, facing an international war, critical priorities determined which combat theaters would see badly needed resources, while Americans had to accept sacrifice at home. Today, it is not the Atlantic or Pacific theater, but rather the medical, political, and economic theaters where we have to confront this pandemic now.

Even though his most significant wartime experience was as a general, Dwight Eisenhower understood the importance of strategic planning. His approach to the Cold War was to ensure unity of effort by balancing the military and economic avenues to confront the Soviets. He believed that "plans were useless" but "planning is essential," and he knew how those mobilized, whether soldiers under his command or the public as a whole, could gain confidence from feeling that their leaders had a clear plan of action. These examples show there is no substitute for the power of the president when it comes to crafting strategy and creating unity of effort, both through the powers of the office along with the bully pulpit.

Finally, a wartime leader has to communicate the stakes of the challenge and why Americans must make sacrifices. For Lincoln, it was the struggle to ensure our government "shall not perish from this earth." For Woodrow Wilson, it was to establish a "world safe for democracy." Before the United States even found itself at war, Roosevelt had communicated the looming threat and the need to defend those four freedoms of speech, of worship, from fear, and from want, against the threat of fascism. As he stated, "As man does not live by bread alone, they do not fight by armaments alone. Those who man our defenses, and those behind them who will build our defenses, must have the stamina and the courage which come from an unshakeable belief in the manner of life which they are defending."

Today, our nation fights not to vanquish an enemy, but to save the lives of our fellow Americans. There are tough economic and physical sacrifices to be made, but we do so for the doctors, nurses, scientists, and so many others fighting this pandemic. This struggle is unlike those wars we have fought in the past, but the critical leadership lessons remain the same.

Dan Mahaffee is the senior vice president and director of policy at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington.

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