The Covid-19 crisis has revealed not just the public health preparedness of the affected countries but also the character and ideologies of their political elites. That became especially clear this week, when the leaders of the United States, France, and Germany each delivered televised addresses to their respective nations. Each speech offered a bracing reflection of the leader's deepest underlying political beliefs. In short, in a time of crisis, Trump's gonna Trump, Macron's gonna Macron, and Merkel's gonna Merkel.
President Donald Trump's Wednesday national address was mostly characterized by its attacks on travel freedom and boogeymen in the European Union. In many ways, the speech was a snapshot of his presidency. Primed by a three-year atrophy of the administrative state—including the White House's shuttered pandemic readiness office and cuts to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—Trump drew primarily on his instinctual vindictiveness against the EU. From a public health perspective, the administration's 30-day European travel ban was mostly a punitive distraction. Although even here, Trump sloppily misread his own script, suggesting that the ban would include European "trade and cargo" before his team clarified—against the backdrop of tumbling financial markets—that it would not.
His administration spent the next 24 hours trying to build a policy case around the travel ban. His CDC director rationalized the travel restriction by stating that "Europe is the new China," seeming to ignore that the botched testing rollout likely meant that thousands of cases remained unreported within US borders. Trump, for his part, justified the travel ban by stating that the EU had imposed unfair tax hikes on the United States during the Obama years.
Meanwhile, Europe burned white hot with ire at the lack of warning about the policy shift (although Trump claimed that coordinating with the Europeans would have taken too long). The media derisively mocked Trump, citing his quotes from the prior week about how the coronavirus would disappear on its own. And Europe's America watchers openly fretted about the United States' brittle resilience, thin public health and social safety net, and flubbed early testing.
Within 18 hours, it was Emmanuel Macron's turn. Addressing the public in a gilded hall in the Élysée Palace, the French president spoke in sweeping terms about the "greatest health crisis in France in a century." He laid the seeds for a visionary agenda, including an economic relaunch of the EU, energetic global public health efforts, and a top-down agenda in France of school closures and state-financed stimulus, all powered by a new spirit of solidarity against the disease.
The speech was watched by 22 million people and was largely praised by the French public. The expansiveness of Macron's agenda echoed his citizens' outsized expectations of their government and also the tools available to the leader of a centralized state like France: As president, Macron is in a position to force stimulus measures quickly through a docile parliament. But the speech also inadvertently demonstrated the constraints imposed by France's middling political and economic power on the world (and European) stage—constraints that Macron has run up against repeatedly while in office. Although Macron presented himself as seizing a mantle of international leadership during the present crisis, in reality, he only has the power to consult with the leaders of more powerful countries (whether in Washington or Berlin) to coordinate the expansive policies he desires.
In Germany, Angela Merkel dutifully waited until after Macron's speech to begin her own press conference Thursday. The chancellor entered an unspectacular press room in Berlin flanked by Bavarian Minister-President Markus Söder and Hamburg Mayor Peter Tschentscher—a clear nod to the federal nature of the German republic. In contrast to her speech a day earlier, she stuck to low-key generalizations, commended German preparedness in contrast with other European countries, and ended with a vague platitude about European coordination. She then turned the conference over to Söder, who, seeming more like the de facto chancellor, commanded the remainder of the evening with detailed operational policy decisions on school closures, testing, and hospital preparedness.
The press conference struck a lot of similar chords from Merkel's fourth term in office—above all, in its overemphasis on her own powerlessness. In one sense, this is a reflection of Germany's constitutional order: Competencies on school closures, public transportation, and event-size restrictions rest with Germany's 16 federal Länder (states), not the national government.
But one thread running through Merkel's career has been a decision not to wield all the power she indisputably does have at her disposal. She has repeatedly delegated vast autonomy to members of her cabinet, and that has been no different in the present crisis. Jens Spahn, the energetic 39-year-old health minister, has been the symbol of political reassurance, while Finance Minister Olaf Scholz and Economic Minister Peter Altmaier independently announced unlimited liquidity assistance to German companies and even the possible nationalization of industries.
The coronavirus pandemic has so far lacked the moment where Merkel has taken the reins and changed the course of German policy in a big way, like with the 2011 Energiewende decision or the 2015 refugee crisis. As Germany's crisis management takes shape, it has been decidedly decentralized, with Merkel mostly conspicuous in her absence. The problems with this approach have been most apparent on the European level, which has been decidedly uncoordinated without strong German leadership. Germany's fiscal "Whatever It Takes" liquidity policy effectively nationalizes what had been a European Central Bank-driven, eurozone-wide policy in the euro crisis, leaving many to ask whether Germany is leaving Europe economically in the lurch.
Twenty-four hours, three leaders, three patterns of leadership: The coronavirus crisis forced three of the West's most important leaders to reveal themselves. Trump presented himself as a rage-driven amateur defined by sloppiness and vindictiveness; Macron as an ambitious visionary clipped by capacity; and Merkel as a diminished figure fading slowly into the background without leaving office. The world can only hope they suffice.