President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis is a blessing in disguise, because it has given him one last chance to win over millions of reluctant voters who approve of his policies but not of him. His illness has created a moment of sympathy, and with it an unexpected opportunity for a reset. He needs to seize that moment by offering the American people a clear vision for how he will end this pandemic. He may not take this advice, but whether he does may well determine whether Americans give him a second term.
As soon as his health permits, the president should deliver an address to the nation on his recovery and the way forward in the battle against the virus. He should begin by thanking Joe Biden for his graciousness during this difficult moment and talk about how moved he was by the prayers of millions of Americans — including many who do not support him — for his and the first lady’s recovery. He should discuss his experience fighting COVID-19 in deeply personal terms and express his empathy and solidarity with the millions of Americans who have struggled with it. He should say that, just as he beat this virus, so will America — and then lay out his vision for how we will do so.
Rather than re-litigate the past, he should offer a hopeful vision for the future by focusing on the one initiative that will allow us to defeat COVID-19 once and for all — Operation Warp Speed. Trump can remind Americans that in May he launched “a massive scientific, industrial, and logistical endeavor unlike anything our country has seen since the Manhattan Project” — marshaling the resources of private industry, our public health agencies and the Defense Department to speed the development, manufacture and distribution of vaccines and therapeutics for the novel coronavirus and COVID-19.
He should say that when he launched this initiative, he had no idea it would one day help save his own life. When he became sick, doctors gave him one of the therapeutics developed under Operation Warp Speed — an experimental antibody drug created by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals that infuses lab-generated antibodies into the body to boost the body’s immune defense rather than waiting for it to muster its own. Without it, he may have suffered a far more serious illness.
In July, his administration announced a $450 million project under Operation Warp Speed to scale up manufacturing of Regeneron’s drug so that we have as many as 300,000 treatment doses available as soon as it is approved by the Food and Drug Administration. And this is just one example of how his administration is speeding development of therapeutics and vaccines that will speed our nation’s recovery. Since May, the federal government has invested about $10 billion in eight vaccine candidates, several of which are on track to complete Phase 3 trials by the end of the year or early 2021. Vaccines almost always take at least five years to develop; Operation Warp Speed will have done it in a matter of months.
Trump should say that he understands some have questions about the safety of vaccines and therapeutics being developed under Operation Warp Speed, but that he can offer no better proof of their safety than taking them himself. He should say he took Regeneron’s experimental treatment and will do the same when the first vaccine becomes available.
He should then pivot to the progress we have made on the economy. In the past four months, we have added more than 11 million jobs, and third-quarter economic growth is likely to break all previous records. The United States, he should say, is ready to get back to normal — and that return to normal is now within our reach. The day is coming, sooner than most imagine, when we will be able to hug our grandparents again, go back to work and school, and return to our previous lives. He has a clear plan to get us to that day.
He should then take this message into the next debate. He should thank Biden for his prayers and not interrupt, mock or belittle his opponent. Let Biden be the first to attack. He will say that it should not have taken the president getting sick for him to take the virus seriously. Trump should answer calmly that he has taken it seriously, as evidenced by Operation Warp Speed, but that he now understands the virus in a way no one who has not gone through it ever can.
In the wake of his illness, Trump’s devoted base will rally around him. But if he handles it right, the rest of the country could rally around him, too.