February 24, 2024


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Commentary: Trump fights a two-front war on the coronavirus

SINGAPORE: Presidents such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt achieved greatness leading the US in war.

Maybe that’s why so many other US presidents describe their actions in militaristic terms.

President Lyndon Johnson declared a “war on poverty” in 1964.

Seven years later, President Richard Nixon did the same with a “war on drugs”.

In the aftermath of 9/11, President George W Bush declared a “war on terror”.

But, when the enemy cannot be found on a battlefield, uniting the nation to your cause becomes much more difficult, legally and politically.

These wars had varying degrees of success.

Johnson used his war on poverty as a lever to pass social welfare legislation that may have otherwise been blocked by Congress. Today, the poverty rate is roughly 12 per cent, down from the 19 per cent when Johnson made his declaration. A good result, but far from total victory.

Nixon’s war on drugs had some elements of success, such as the creation of the Drug Enforcement Agency. The on-going opioid crisis, however, shows that war continues to rage.

While there have been no foreign terror attacks in the US since 2001, the war on terror has no end in sight.

Now, US President Donald Trump describes the COVID-19 pandemic as “our big war”.

The United States must achieve a better result in this war than in the ones against poverty, drugs and terror.

READ: Commentary: Joe Biden’s establishment credentials suddenly look attractive with this coronavirus outbreak

READ: Commentary: The US healthcare system was ill-prepared in the first place

It will take a blend of war time and peace time leadership from the president to do so most effectively.


No comparison between Singapore and the US works in the context of fighting this pandemic.

With less than 6 million people, medical resources which can be easily concentrated and the ability to essentially close off its borders, Singapore can better contain COVID-19 than can even just New York City.

Still, the language of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in bringing Singapore together would work in the United States.

“What makes Singapore different from other countries is that we have confidence in each other, we feel that we are all in this together, and we do not leave anyone behind. This is SG United, we are SG United.”

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong doorstop Mar 27 (5)

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks to the media at a doorstop at the Istana on Mar 27, 2020. (Photo: MCI)

Donald Trump can learn from Prime Minister Lee in how to unite a country in fighting this war.


The US Constitution checks the authority of the president.

In times of war, greater powers are granted to the president, though one of the country’s Founding Fathers, James Madison, warned, “war is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandisement,” so even then, the powers are not absolute.  

In World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt united the country population with his speeches (“a date which will live in infamy”) coupled with wartime powers to achieve that victory.

LISTEN: What’s behind the different approaches countries are taking towards COVID-19?

READ: Commentary: Singapore has a New Deal. We call it the Resilience Budget

As part of the all-out war effort, GM converted all of its factories to produce US$12 billion worth of airplanes, trucks, tanks, guns and shells for the US military in the largest commercial-to-military war production effort in American history.

The entire country united in fighting Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.


Much of the modern emergency authority President Trump can wield derives from the vast authority granted to Roosevelt during World War II.

At nearly every turn since, those grants have been tempered by Congress and the Supreme Court to reflect the constitutional balance of powers.

Indeed, during the Cold War, the Supreme Court drew a sharp distinction between the severity of the threat faced during WWII as opposed to the Korean War and curtailed an attempt by President Truman to force steel industry activity during a work stoppage.  

Towards the end of the Vietnam War, Congress sought to restore the balance of power even in times of war and regain congressional authority to declare war with the War Powers Act in 1973.

The clear lesson of these refinements in presidential emergency powers bears significant relevance as President Trump leads the country to defeat the novel coronavirus.

New York, home to the United Nations, has become the epicenter of the COVID-19 coronavirus in the

New York, home to the United Nations, has become the epicenter of the COVID-19 coronavirus in the United States. (Photo: AFP/Johannes EISELE)

Now, the strength to act decisively will be greatest when bipartisan support exists in Washington DC, and state and local leaders across the nation are treated as equal members of the war council.


There have been no complaints when President Trump uses his executive authority to lead the battle against the coronavirus. All of his actions have been supported.

He invoked the Defense Production Act to order GM to speed up production of ventilators in one of its auto plants.

The Pentagon dispatched its two Navy hospital ships, one each in New York and Los Angeles, and deployed Army hospital units to other locations.

Trump also ordered some former service members to return to active duty to assist in the coronavirus response.

READ: Commentary: How to tell your stubborn, older relative to adopt social distancing

READ: Commentary: Restrictions on movements in some Southeast Asian countries to fight COVID-19 have been patchy, even scary

But there are limits to the president’s authority.

Members of Congress plus state and local officials have autonomous powers needed to win this war.

For the president to lead them, they have to want to follow him.


Only Congress can provide funding for this war effort.

Without their appropriation, the President has no money to spend.

The Democratic-led House of Representatives and the Republican-controlled Senate worked together to pass the US$2 trillion coronavirus relief bill, believed to be the largest in US history.

For every glimmer of hope like the recently passed aid package, there are conflicting signals bipartisanship will not be celebrated such as when President Trump signed the bill into law, he did not invite a single Democrat for the Oval Office ceremony while hosting multiple Republicans.

Celebrating only with members of his own party highlights he does not fully grasp the importance of his leading all of the country.

More importantly, President Trump also set up a potential battle with Democrats over his desire to exercise unilateral authority over key oversight provisions in the law.

Moreover, this stimulus will not be enough. He needs to work with Congress on the next one to win this war, and possibly another after.

READ: Commentary: Will COVID-19 bring on the next Great Depression?

READ: Commentary: The great coronavirus pandemic will lead to another – of unemployment

After Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi declared that, “the president’s denial at the beginning was deadly,” the President described her as “a sick puppy”.

Washington needs to be #DCUnited on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.


The president serves as the nation’s Commander-in-Chief.

But what happens when the enemy is a virus within the country and the army fighting the battle is not the US military?

Those leading today’s war are the governors of each state. And these “generals” do not report to the president.

Before Trump announced the extension of the social distancing guidelines to Apr 30, Maryland’s Republican Governor Larry Hogan said he was prepared to ignore President Trump if he reverted to his “very harmful” message of reopening large sections of the economy by Easter.

The president and the governors need to work together. They need to be consulted before actions are contemplated or mused about to the public.

Yet, President Trump proclaims he will not work with those he deems unworthy.

For example, he accused Democratic governor of Washington State, Jay Inslee, of not being “appreciative” of his coronavirus efforts and said he had directed Vice-President Mike Pence not to call him. 

He did the same with regard to Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, also a Democrat when he said: “Don’t call the woman in Michigan.”


Americans unite behind presidents when victory is a national imperative.

The war against the coronavirus must be won. And it will. But when? And at what cost?

President Trump discussed how certain parts of the country could re-open for business by Easter.

That leads to questions about the president’s total commitment to the cause. He also continues to favour his party.

Elements of his language seemed to change at his press briefing on Sunday (Mar 29).

In announcing his extension of the social distancing measures to Apr 30, he said: “Nothing would be worse than declaring victory before the victory is won.”

Will that approach remain? Will his rhetoric follow?

Imagine if President Trump acts upon the mission set forth for his country by Prime Minister Lee: “We do not leave anyone behind.”

“Leave no one behind.” A universal tradition. And one needed now more than ever.

BOOKMARK THIS: Our comprehensive coverage of the novel coronavirus and its developments

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Steven R Okun and Thurgood Marshall Jr served in the Clinton administration as Deputy General Counsel at the Department of Transportation and White House Cabinet Secretary, respectively. Mr Okun serves as senior adviser for global strategic consultancy McLarty Associates in Singapore. Mr Marshall practices law in Washington.

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