In relief-bill talks, ‘Donald from Queens’ isn't much help

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As tempting as it is to talk about President Donald Trump's instinctive corruption or to analyze his enthusiasm for deploying federal law enforcement against the wishes of mayors and governors or to note his latest defiance of the courts and the Constitution or his recurring falsehoods about the pandemic or even to speculate about why he had warm words for someone accused of assisting a sexual predator, I can't help it: I'm stuck on his inability to perform some of the more basic aspects of his job. 

It's now been four months since the CARES Act became law. And with deadlines closing in to renew expanded unemployment benefits and other relief, the White House and Senate Republicans appear to be somewhere between high-level bickering and full-out war with each other. While it's fair to hold Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his colleagues responsible for some of the chaos, the truth is that there's only one president — who normally could be expected to either take the lead or to play a coordinating role and forge necessary compromises.

Trump does neither. Instead, he plays "Donald from Queens," the talk-radio caller shooting off about various topics and then failing to follow through. Since he's also the president, however, many Republican senators quite sensibly aren't thrilled about going on the record opposing him. So his proposals sort of hang out there — a payroll-tax holiday, a vague idea about infrastructure, a tax deduction for entertainment and dining expenses. None of these ideas has much support among congressional Republicans. Nor has Trump made any serious effort to sell them. But since he also doesn't abandon them, they become obstacles to putting together any kind of legislative package.

It's unlikely that Tuesday's press conference helped matters. What Trump said about unemployment benefits was illustrative:

We want to have people go back and want to go back to work as opposed to be, sort of, forced into a position where they're making more money than they expected to make. And the employers are having a hard time getting them back to work.

So that was a decision that was made. I was against that original decision, but they did that. It still worked out well because it gave people a lifeline, a real lifeline. Now we're doing it again. They're thinking about doing 70 percent of the amount. The amount would be the same, but doing it in a little bit smaller initial amounts so that people are going to want to go back to work, as opposed to making so much money that they really don't have to.

But we were very generous with them. I think that it's been a tremendously successful program. 

Sure, there are lots of examples of presidents who speak in gibberish deliberately to avoid taking a position. That would be about the best case I could make for this answer. But Trump is in a situation where reaching a deal, and therefore reaching a unified Republican position, is urgent if he has any hope of boosting the economy in the run-up to the November election. That doesn't seem like a situation that calls for simply letting everyone else negotiate.

More likely, Trump just hasn't paid much attention to the details. Which means no one is doing the work that only presidents can do for their party and for the nation. That's not the only reason that the virus continues to spread and the economy remains precarious — but it sure isn't helping.

1. Phillip M. Ayoub at the Monkey Cage on Poland's election and its LGBT community.

2. Dan Drezner on thepost-Trump Republican Party.

3. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Karl W. Smith on a really bad nominee for the Federal Reserve.

4. Neil Paine and Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux on what economists think about expanded unemployment insurance.

5. And Dahlia Lithwick and Molly Olmstead on the women who went to Harvard Law with Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

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