Stop the Press (Conferences)

If one knew nothing about who the elected leaders of the United States were, watching these daily White House coronavirus task force briefings would suggest that Dr. Anthony Fauci is the president and Donald Trump is his press secretary. While many of President Trump’s detractors might prefer that situation, the 2016 election did not end that way.

The patience of many Americans with these daily task force press briefings is growing thin. There is only so much one can take of unelected bureaucrats publicly answering the wrong questions. Rather than pointing out what others have already said, however, let’s take a different path.

Remember that thing we used to love called sports? That activity where people would compete against each other in different games of varying athletic prowess. I have heard tell of some games taking place within our regime of social distancing and that groups of spectators larger than 10 were sometimes assembled. I also remember that people used to get paid millions of dollars to play or coach these sports professionally.

I also remember that after games, even on off days, the head coach and some of the players would speak to the press. It’s funny though, most of the time, I remember the focus of those press conferences would be on the head coach and star players. Yet, even when that star player was a stud, the buck stopped with the manager. Furthermore, it was very rare for the role players and assistant coaches to be thrust into a position of representing the failures or successes of the whole team. To put the spotlight on them might have reflected poorly on team leadership.

Let’s be a tad more specific. While the offensive line in football is one of the most underappreciated parts of the game, I rarely remember the offensive-line coach upstaging the head coach in daily press briefings. The line coach may often be larger in stature than the head coach, but the o-line coach also answers to the head coach. If we were to step out even further, that head coach answers to the general manager in the front office.

Imagine a professional football team with a front office choosing to spend essentially every cent of salary on the offensive line, thus having phenomenal blocking, but subpar performance everywhere else. A team constructed this way would win some games, giving it a sense of false hope some weeks, but ultimately, more balanced teams would fare better in the end. In turn, many fans would stay home as the turnovers, missed field goals, and poor defense resulted in that poor record.

Likewise, imagine if after every game, the press spent most of its time with the offensive line coach asking what else the team can do to block better. The offensive-line coach then analyzes each play for the press using digital projections of the playbook before also letting the press know that the team would be better if it spent even more money on better lineman. The head coach or the GM would then follow up by saying how much they believe in the team and the process, and that things will turn around soon and be “really great.”

I’m not a sports handicapper, but I wouldn’t bet on that team to win the Super Bowl unless you thought every other team was going to forfeit out of sympathy.

Though as much as I would love to keep talking about sports, we must return to reality.

No analogy is perfect, but the one I presented is similar to what we are seeing with the White House coronavirus task force. We can’t win many games with our current construction. This committee operates with tunnel vision.

The game plan, according to the task force, is to “inconveniently” press pause on American life until there are practically no COVID-19 cases or there is a vaccine, then hit play and return to normal. The press lobs softball questions at them each day. President Trump follows with some lip service towards rebuilding the once multi-trillion dollar American economy before engaging in his daily sparring matches with journalists.

Lost in this process is that while we don’t like to hear of anyone tragically dying of COVID-19, the head coach of America needs to respond to the actual game we are playing—the overall health of the United States. This “health” encompasses physical, mental, and economic health.

Hyperfocus on any one of those to the detriment of the others will not result in the team winning games. At its worst, it will result in factions fighting with each other as each side deems its claim to “health”  more conducive to winning, because a decline in any of those variables can be attributed to an increase in deaths.

President Trump is the head coach. Regardless of what is going on behind the scenes, these press briefings do not help the president look effective in his role.

A leader can never overcommunicate to his people in a crisis. President Trump needs to start talking directly to the people again. He needs to focus on being real with the citizens, like he was on the campaign trail, instead of just trying to win every point with reporters.

Citizens are willing to sacrifice if they know the game plan. Indefinite house arrest in a society founded on liberty is not a long-term strategy. There was a time when reporters better represented the citizenry and would ask such questions, but that’s not happening in these press briefings. The reporter whack-a-mole act will grow old even among Trump supporters, as more weeks pass without the ability for them to earn an income.

President Trump owns both the virus response and the financial effects of the response. He is responsible for Dr. Deborah Birx’s admission of how COVID-19 deaths are reported. He cannot escape that unless he wants to resign and pass it off. The media will hold him responsible for everything negative. Some reporters likely already have written their stories blaming him for the first COVID-19 death post-reopening, and are just waiting to fill in the victim’s name. Full acceptance of these realities needs to be built into any strategy.

While President Trump can point to successes in dealing with COVID-19, his team is losing the game of the country’s overall health. The more we lose, the longer the rebuilding process. Teams don’t often stick with that same head coach or general manager through the rebuilding process, as a head coach often takes much of the blame for the failure to effectively coordinate resources.

How the president chooses to take responsibility for the COVID-19 response will determine if he is to be considered a 21st-century Herbert Hoover. Speaking in Twitter language, #MAGA is done for the time being. Will it become #MAGDA—Make America the Great Depression Again, or (as Rush Limbaugh said) #MAHA—Make America Healthy Again?

About Jason Fertig

Jason Fertig is an associate professor of management at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville. His research interests involve effective management and leadership. He also has an interest in commenting on the state of higher education. He has written essays for the National Association of Scholars and the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. He also advises the College Republicans at the University of Southern Indiana.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

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