Howes: Coronavirus reveals character, credibility of leaders

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

In times of crisis, the credibility of leadership matters.

Even as President Donald Trump addressed the nation from the Oval Office Wednesday night, futures on the Dow Jones Industrial Average and other indexes plunged, signaling that a long record of half-truths exacts a price for a president facing his first indisputable crisis: too many people don’t believe him.

And investors made real their dismay the next day, pummeling financial markets once again Thursday as Republicans and Democrats in Congress raced to pass a coronavirus relief package they hope will deliver a measure of reassurance that Trump’s 11-minute address clearly did not.

From the Oval Office, President Donald Trump addresses the nation Wednesday about coronavirus.

Michigan’s top political leaders don’t have the same problem. A day after state health officials confirmed two cases of coronavirus in southeast Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency — which Trump has yet to do. They detailed ways residents could “mitigate” the virus, and used both a news conference and social media to spread the word.

Hours later, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan partially opened the city’s emergency operations center, acknowledged the arrival of the virus as "inevitable" and said: “What we are doing is not panicking. We are preparing.”

Exactly right. Neither the president, the governor, nor the mayor are responsible for creating coronavirus. But as it makes its way across the country, Trump, Whitmer, Duggan and many others in leadership will be judged by how they manage the crisis — with transparency or obfuscation, with empathy or self-absorption, with a focus on people or an obsession with political consequences.

Not since the 9/11 terrorist attacks 19 years ago has so much changed so quickly: equity markets plummeted more than 20% and into "bear market" territory with astonishing speed; seasons suspended or postponed for the NBA, NHL, MLB and Major League Soccer; museum programs restricted and symphony concerts canceled; airlines whipsawed by fears summoned for a push to beat a new European travel ban.

In less than 24 hours, a broad swath of the country witnessed a collective awakening encapsulated in four words: this thing is real. No NCAA "March Madness" college basketball. No more NHL this year in Hockeytown. The Great White Way of Broadway is going dark. The state of Ohio is closing all K-12 public, private and charter schools for three weeks.

Could this all end up being one enormous overreaction? It could. But without the benefit of aggressive testing promised by the feds that too often doesn't materialize, public health and elected officials, as well as decision-makers, don't have the information they need to assess the risk. So they hit the cancel button.

Who could blame them? If the experts are right and the spread of the virus will get worse before it gets better, it would be irresponsible to encourage basketball fans to attend games where they could pass an infection many may not know they're carrying.

Welcome to front-row seats to profiles in leadership. In Washington, from the White House to Congress to the medical professionals working for the government. In Lansing, Detroit and other Michigan cities, where elected officials and their public health teams are on the ground and setting the tone.

"We are all in this together," Trump said in his address to the nation. "We must put politics aside, stop the partisanship and unify together as one nation and one family."

Irony notwithstanding, he's absolutely right. Leadership in the face of great challenges of still-unknown proportions is not about the leaders or their political priorities. It's about doing the job for the people they represent and letting the performance shape the politics for good or ill.

Like 9/11 for President Bush or the bankruptcy and bailout of Detroit for President Obama, Trump will be judged by how he navigates his administration and the nation through a public health crisis that threatens to negate his strongest argument for re-election: a steadily growing economy with low unemployment and strong gains in financial markets.

Successful leaders rise to the moment. How they do it reveals true character that builds credibility — or squanders it in fits of self-absorption.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs most Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN. Or listen to his Saturday podcasts at or on Michigan Radio, 91.7 FM.