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How America responds to a crisis says a lot about who we are as a nation.

In the wake of the World War II devastation to western Europe the United States' government passed the European Recovery Program of 1948.  Better known as the Marshall Plan,  it sent $12 billion in economic recovery aid to rebuild war torn nations.  The plan was audacious and visionary and unprecedented.  The aid combated communist and Soviet influence in Western Europe, accelerated U.S. exports to the region, kick started GDP growth in Germany, Italy, and Australia, and helped spur European integration.

In short the Marshall plan had a lot going for it.

Fast forward to 2005 when the U.S. woke up to the catastrophe and devastation of Hurricane Katrina.    The media went wall to wall with the grim realities of the storm and the crisis on the ground.    It was two days before President George W. Bush decided to cut short his vacation to view the unthinkable crisis along the Gulf Coast from 35,0000 feet on Air Force One.

Needless to say, Bush’s response to the crisis is not looked upon favorably by history.

And now, just like with Katrina, the coronavirus pandemic is playing out on our TV screens and on our social media 24-7.  The coverage is relentless and inescapable.   And the emerging facts are that the White House is in over their collective heads to effectively handle the pandemic.

Just like Bush, the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW has been besieged by a reality that the world is quickly changing.  Crises are moments in history when presidents either rise up to the challenge or inadequately meet the moment as Bush learned.

Unfortunately the POTUS, and believe me I want his to succeed, is headed down a path where the feds are either denying or failing to recognize the scale of the pandemic.  

Because here is a take-it-to-the-bank truth.  Every day that the U.S. fails to see the longer-term ramifications of the coronavirus, the problems get more complicated and more expensive to fix.

Up to now Americans have been victimized by a lack of imagination and vision at the White House because 1) there is a significant lack of talent and brain power among our federal leadership and 2) the White House looks at the pandemic through the short-sighted lens of the November election.

Our leaders are guilty of a colossal failure of imagination. The ability to understand what’s truly happening is a prerequisite for devising solutions. Until they begin looking squarely at the daunting reality, the United States has no chance of surmounting this crisis.

How so?  In ways both small and large.

The bailouts.  They have been little more than a short term Band-Aid to keep smaller businesses from firing employees.  Congress allocated $669 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program.  The money dries up in June.  How long will lawmakers prevent further massive layoffs given 36 million Americans are already sidelined?

Colleges and Universities.  Expect many public colleges to severely cut back on class offerings or close down for the fall.  The University of Michigan recently estimated it needs a $1 billion bailout.

State governments.  Unlike the feds, states can’t print money to solve their woes and most have constitutional balanced budget requirements.  States are going broke to fight the pandemic.  Pandemic ground zero New York faces a $13 billion shortage, while more rural Colorado’s shortfall is roughly $3 billion.  Many other states fall somewhere between.

Social distancing rules and norms.  Economic forecasts haven’t begun to account for the new normal where, for example, restaurant capacity may not rise much above 50 %.  Most restaurants probably won’t be able to make ends meet...and even if they could 50 % capacity means  50 % fewer waiters , hostesses and cooks.  Millions of restaurant jobs will disappear.  And that’s just a single business sector.  What about hospitality and travel?  Movies, concerts and entertainment? 

World forces.  The ongoing oil battle in the teeth of COVID-19 between Saudia Arabia and Russia has collapsed oil prices and ripped the heart out of the U.S. shale industry.  

Our new normal.  The pandemic will change forever how we view and live.  Businesses are learning they don’t need as much office space or employees.  Teleworking and Zoom are here to stay. Few department stores will survive.

Agriculture.  The USDA response has been slow and lagging to address the horrors in U.S. meat packing plants, to the dumping of milk and plowing under of vegetable crops.  And even before COVID-19 the farming sector wasn’t healthy.  The American Farm Bureau Federation reports year-over-year bankruptcies are up 23 % from March 2019 to March 2020.  Scary stuff.

And oh by the way doctors a whole lot smarter than me say a second wave of COVID-19 is likely this fall.

To all of this the federal response has been underwhelming.  The $2 trillion relief package doesn’t begin to address the long-term ramifications of the coronavirus.  Want a financial wake up call?  The Congressional Budget office predicts the U.S. economy will shrink an unheard of 40 % on an annualized basis later this year. 

Nothing economically will be spared.  Unfortunately the POTUS executive branch is not up to the task.  Vacancies, revolving doors, partisan appointments, and lack of leadership at the top have created a perfect storm where it’s going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better. 

It’s really no wonder that the latest Pew Research Survey said that just 17 % of Americans currently trust government to do the right thing all or most of the time.  In all fairness it just isn’t the current POTUS.  Trust in the federal government has been declining for years in the wake of a boatload of poorly mishandled crisis – the invasion of Iraq, the response to Hurricane Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon oil well explosion, the inability to sign up for the Affordable Care Act to name just a few.

And deepening political divisions haven’t helped.

I think it will take the tens of trillions of tax dollars over the next ten years to clean up this growing coronavirus mess.  Are the feds equipped?  Right now the answer is no.

About Dave Dickey

Dave Dikcey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for the Midwest Center covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.