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Trump puts 'leading from behind' in a bizarre new light

Trump says he's "a war-time president," but he also sees 50 commanders in chief scrambling on their own, while he "looks from behind."
President Donald Trump, flanked by Vice President Mike Pence, speaks during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, at the White House on March 24, 2020.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images

It's been nearly a decade since the New Yorker ran a lengthy piece on the Obama administration's policy toward the Arab Spring, which quoted in passing an unnamed adviser saying the White House preferred "leading from behind" in Libya. The Democratic president never actually used or endorsed the phrase -- he actually said the opposite -- but for Barack Obama's critics, the phrase became a rhetorical staple.

It came to mind yesterday listening to Donald Trump talk about his expectations that state and local governments would take the lead on addressing the coronavirus crisis. Referring to the allocation of resources and equipment, the president said at a White House briefing:

"Again, the state has to be doing this kind of a thing also. We're sort of a, we look from behind a little bit and we look at how are they doing, and if they need help, we do it. But it's their first responsibility."

Soon after, Trump called into Sean Hannity's Fox News program and argued that he sees the federal government as "the second line of attack" in the response to the crisis. The president then singled out Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) for "always complaining" -- the governor "shouldn't be relying on the federal government," Trump added -- before turning his attention to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), whose name he couldn't remember.

"We've had a big problem with the young, a woman governor from, you know who I'm talking about, from Michigan," Trump said. "So we can't, you know, we don't like to see the complaints." He added that Whitmer wants a federal declaration of emergency, "and you know, we'll have to make a decision on that."

It's among the bewildering postures the president has embraced as the crisis has intensified. On the one hand, Trump, pointing to the pandemic, has declared himself to be "a war-time president." On the other hand, Trump apparently envisions a governing model in which 50 commanders in chief scramble on their own, while he and his team "look from behind."

It's an abdication of presidential leadership -- on a historic scale -- that Trump is making no effort to hide.

"[G]overnors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work," he said last week, adding, "The federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping. You know, we're not a shipping clerk. The governors are supposed to be -- as with testing, the governors are supposed -- are supposed to be doing it."

He added this week, in reference to governors, "They can't say, 'Oh gee, we should get this, we should get that.'"

It's all so terribly backwards. Americans are dealing with a national crisis, facing a public-health threat that's indifferent to borders and state boundaries. It's obvious that these conditions require a national response, with a competent and effective federal government, coordinating resources. The alternative is pitting states in a brutal race against each other -- which is precisely what's happening now, because it's the model the president has explicitly endorsed.

Jon Chait had a piece last week that continues to ring true: state and local governments "lack the bargaining power and national scale to take control of industrial processes that lie outside their borders. How is a governor of Ohio or New Mexico supposed to get a manufacturer in, say, California to start producing medical equipment? And how are these governors supposed to allocate the equipment that is produced?"

These aren't rhetorical questions. Indeed, they have an obvious answer: the federal government has the capacity and responsibility to step up and lead. Trump, however, doesn't want to.

As we've discussed, there's no great mystery as to why: the president, desperate to avoid blame, wants unsatisfied Americans to blame their state and local officials, and not him. He appears to see great value in passing the buck, as captured by Trump's recent declaration, "I don't take responsibility at all."

It's not too late for him to change this posture. It might even save a lot of lives.