This just in: Anthony Fauci is just one man.
A very consequential man, a very influential man, a historically important man at the moment. But one man, nonetheless.
This is worth remembering as he is lofted to the status of Health Policy King in some quarters and condemned as a sinister operative in others. Hypersensitivity is to be expected all around with the stakes so high. There is passion to open America, and countervailing passion to prolong restrictive policies. There is a swell of optimism, met on the daily battlefield by the cold waters of gloom.
Amid competing agendas, the foremost medical voice in the nation is going to attract attention, often in the form of flowing praise or harsh criticism. The praise can be well-earned, as when Dr. Fauci shares his deep well of knowledge on virus history and strategies that have worked to combat past outbreaks. But sometimes the cheers come from supporters of the stay-at-home shutdowns and their attendant restrictions. As a matter of policy, these practices have earned liberal approval, which has naturally been extended to the man who has bolstered that logic with unwavering circumspection.
The criticism has come from Americans impatient with the pace of our reopening, containing in some cases active skepticism over the wisdom of destroying the economy to mitigate the COVID-19 toll in the first place. Much of the disapproval has been couched in requisite respect for Fauci’s pedigree and experience, finding fault not with his overall motives but with his judgments and observations over the last few months.
Others have not been so charitable. There is a vocal cohort that can be found beating the drum for Fauci to be fired, if not worse, for ineptitude, if not worse. Just as his fan base is driven in part by the policies he recommends, his detractors are repelled by what they see as unnecessary reticence.
The important role he has been handed on the White House COVID-19 Task Force accentuates his every pronouncement. Add the acclaim of a media culture siding daily with a darker, more restrictive narrative, and Fauci finds himself as one of the most powerful people in America.
But is that power a product of influence he seeks to wield, or has it been conferred by politicians and the press?
It is a very big deal to be the chief medical voice on the COVID-19 task force. A story that hinges on daily tracking of a brutal virus will naturally contain his latest musings. Especially in the early stages, the epidemiological details were the driving plotline of each day’s news. But as weeks unfolded when we hoped for reduced cases while absorbing the certainty of economic ruin, the story expanded. It became permissible to ask how much shutdown the nation could absorb, how soon we might be freed from restrictive measures, and how we might rebuild.
Those were not medical questions. They were matters of economic realities, basic liberties and collective aspirations. Yet virtually every day, there was Dr. Fauci on the news, raining on the reopening parade with the latest warnings culled from the darkest reading of data.
Was he lying? Was he making stuff up? Was he floating pessimism in some ominous plot to torpedo American prosperity?
There is no basis for any such belief. So why the #FireFauci hashtag and the waves of disdain sent his way? Simple: he has become the high priest of doom to many Americans eager to reclaim their lives. And it’s not first and foremost his fault.
Anthony Fauci represents one perspective from one field vital to policy decisions moving forward. His opinion is a proper ingredient in the complex mix of input President Trump should weigh as he divines the leadership stances he wants to deploy.
Any leader convening experts to address a crisis should want at least one worrywart. Mixed in with a variety of expertise, a variety of temperament is also a plus. No one voice should win each day.
Far from tapdancing to Fauci’s tune, Trump has created space between medical cautions and economic necessities, between virus fears and the yearnings for normalcy. So what is the concern? That Trump will one day lean solely toward Fauci’s wariness, casting aside the determination and optimism that has defined his attitude throughout the coronavirus drama? Has anyone met the man?
The building blocks of Fauci-phobia are the natural prominence afforded someone in his position, plus the increasing national taste to balance caution with practicality, plus the media fawning which rises to celebrate his every worry. Reporters have lunged at every opportunity to describe the perceived disconnects between Fauci and Trump when there is no scenario that should feature them in lockstep.
Fauci is a medical voice, someone from whom caution might be expected. Trump is the Chief Executive, tasked with listening to doctors and a chorus of other voices as well— the voices of business owners fighting for their futures, workers facing lost livelihoods, retirees seeing their nest eggs destroyed, and most compelling of all, citizens demanding to reclaim the right to self-govern. Of course, there will be differences between Trump and Fauci, just as there were differences between Trump and early-opening Georgia Governor Brian Kemp.
One final thing deserves mention as a factor in weighing Fauci’s credibility. With his enviable résumé and deep history of scientific accomplishment, there can be found the occasional moment of outright extremist crankery. How else to explain last month’s certifiably crazy wish for the world to stop shaking hands?
He literally said it: “I don’t think we should ever shake hands again,” he told one interviewer. “As a society, just forget about shaking hands,” he told another, touting to both the benefit of lesser chances of disease propagation.
Well, yes. But what about the crushing blow to one of the joys of our human existence? Not his lane.
And that’s okay. Because Fauci is not the Secretary of Human Interaction. He’s not even chief policymaker as we walk the long path out of this COVID-19 chapter in our lives. He is one important medical voice among many, from one important discipline among many we need to chart a national course.
He is not perfect, and he freely admits it. He has never purported to become the only voice or even the predominant voice in the debate over reopening America.
The problem is that there are portions of the political and media world who want him to be. They are thoroughly enjoying the current phase of authoritarian restrictions and seeking to prolong it. They cheer for Fauci with his every hesitant word, and there will be more. There will also be more malicious attempts to pit the good doctor’s instincts against the president’s.
Fauci on Tuesday invoked some reservations about some schools starting on time and in actual classrooms in the fall, a prospect Trump called “not an acceptable answer.” Do not look for Fauci to become a cheerleader for fast-track reopening. But no one should look for Trump to rein in his vigor at Fauci’s insistence.
This will not be the last time they visibly see things differently. Criticism of Fauci is fair if its basis is fair. Panic and conspiracy theories help no one. Anyone lying awake at the prospect of Fauci’s proximity to Trump’s ear should remember one thing: at any moment when they disagree, Trump is the one who is president.