In times of crisis — from wars to natural disasters to recessions — Americans have looked to the federal government to step up and lead the national effort to confront the challenge.
In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, our federal government, led by Donald Trump, has essentially abdicated its traditional role of spearheading a coordinated response.
State and local governments have always provided the majority of front-line public services in the United States. And a relatively high level of decentralization has been baked into the American constitutional order for centuries, serving most of the time as a good way to cope with the inevitable challenges of governing a country that is both vast and diverse.
But the federal government has unique resources and flexibility, as well as the ability to move things from one part of the country to another to ensure that capabilities are deployed where they are most needed. It can coordinate national-scale markets, mobilize money when things are tight for households and state governments alike, speak with a single voice abroad, communicate rapidly to the population as a whole, and mobilize a far higher level of expertise than any state or local government. Most of all, the places experiencing the greatest level of need at any point may not be the places with the most capabilities. The federal government can get organized, set priorities, and make sure important problems are being addressed in a timely and comprehensive way.
But while Donald Trump enjoys playing president on TV, he’s always been lazy about doing the actual job. So while he’s taking advantage of the crisis to stage daily extra-long episodes of the Trump Show with guest appearances from Mike Pence and public health officials, the executive branch of the federal government is mostly missing in action.
David Schleicher, a Yale Law School professor who studies federalism and comparative issues, notes that “in most countries — as far as I can tell — the crisis has led to centralization of authority, both towards the national government and towards the chief executive,” which is the historical pattern in the United States. But now in America, while state governments have moved to centralize authorities rather than allow an uncoordinated response, the federal government has been absent.
Politico’s John Harris calls Trump “an authoritarian weakman” in contrast to someone like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who is using the outbreak to further neuter his country’s democracy.
But it’s not as if Trump is acting out of some high-minded opposition to self-aggrandizement. He’s made himself the star of the television version of the federal response, bragged about his ratings, and boasted that he is now “number one on Facebook” (in fact, Barack Obama has nearly 25 million more followers). Nor has he been above meddling in pursuit of partisan political objectives. Rather, as Schleicher says, the core to Trump’s approach is that he is “seeking to avoid responsibility and blame rather than assert control,” an instinct that’s reinforced by the conservative ideology of his top aides and major donors.
The result is a hollow core at the center of the national response. As Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), who was publicly warning of inadequate coronavirus preparation in early February, put it, “the administration has effectively declared surrender.”
Rather than managing a public health emergency, they are managing a public relations crisis while leaving states to cope with the actual problem.
Trump: The buck stops with Andrew Cuomo
Nowhere has this absence been more glaring than in the administration’s dealings with the state hardest hit by coronavirus thus far: New York.
The epicenter of the outbreak is currently New York City and the surrounding suburbs. New York is arguably uniquely vulnerable to pandemic disease because so much international air travel goes through it. City officials also argue that its uniquely high population density and transit usage by American standards leave it vulnerable, though the success of Seoul, Taipei, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tokyo at controlling the virus makes me doubt that.
It’s also clear that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) made some serious policy errors in early to mid-March. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) eventually stepped in to fill the void, but in retrospect he waited longer than he should (and the governors of New Jersey and Connecticut seemed insufficiently attentive to the inevitable spillover into their states) and legitimately deserves some of the blame. But by stepping up, albeit belatedly, he improved the situation.
A desperate New York repeatedly turned to the administration for help, and the administration continually failed to step up.
In a series of tweets Thursday morning, Trump explicitly stated his rationale, claiming that the federal government is nothing more than a “backup” for the states and not a first-line crisis responder. He also complained about governors’ “insatiable appetites” for medical supplies and blamed New York state for its “slow start,” while suggesting it has perhaps already gotten more help than it deserves.
This is gross as rhetoric, and the idea that the federal government is a mere “backup” in the middle of a historic global crisis is risible, an analysis straight out of the Articles of Confederation.
But it also reflects a more fundamental truth about Trump’s approach to the crisis. There’s no systemic plan of action or objective standard. Instead, federal help is doled out sporadically and arbitrarily, bypassing governors he sees as potential rivals (“prefer sending directly to hospitals”) or whose states aren’t relevant to his Electoral College math, and portrayed as acts of beneficence from a feudal monarch rather than the obligations of a democratically accountable leader.
Partisan relief efforts
During impeachment hearings last November, Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan raised the possibility that a president who used foreign aid as leverage to extract personal political favors might do the same vis-à-vis governors with disaster relief money.
And to the extent that there is any organizing principle to Trump’s actions, it’s precisely along these lines.
During a Fox News virtual town hall on March 24, Trump said assistance to states is “a two-way street. They have to treat us well also.” When governors comply with this demand to sing for their supper, it’s then turned into propaganda videos to boost the president’s political standing.
By contrast, Trump publicly labeled Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (whose coronavirus response seems to have been the most substantively successful of anyone in the country) a “snake” while suggesting that perhaps Pence should stop returning Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s calls. The incredibly slow response of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, by contrast, has received no federal rebuke, since DeSantis is a close ally. And for whatever reason, the opaque system by which the federal government is doling out equipment led to Florida’s requests being fully met even as other states got only a fraction of what they say they need.
More recently, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday that while public health officials want to send new rapid Covid-19 tests from Abbott Laboratories to the hardest-hit communities, White House political officials prefer to prioritize “the south and low-density areas.”
Dating back to long before the crisis, Trump has always acted as the president of the people who supported him rather than as the leader of the entire country. And in the throes of the epidemic as the stakes rise, he’s continued to comport himself in this highly inappropriate matter.
Supply chain chaos
The United States is currently afflicted with a serious shortage of personal protective equipment for medical personnel, along with shortfalls of actual treatments like ventilators and hospital beds in some places. The president has the unique authority to use the Defense Production Act to increase the output of these supplies. And the federal government has the unique responsibility, in a time of shortages and needs, to assess where supplies can do the most good. In a major war, not every field commander can get everything he might want. The responsibility of political leaders is to simultaneously increase production to ameliorate shortages and make decisions about who gets what’s available in order to best achieve high-level goals and ultimate victory.
But Trump refuses to play that role. “The government’s not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping. We’re not a shipping clerk,” Trump memorably said at a press conference last week. “As with testing, the governors are supposed to be doing it.”
The result has been a competitive scramble between states to secure necessary equipment from private providers.
Lydia DePillis and Lisa Song report for ProPublica that New York is paying as much as 15 times the normal rate for desperately needed medical supplies. It happens to be the case that the hardest-hit state at the moment is also one with a large population and an above-average income.
But according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the states that ultimately have the most vulnerable populations tend to be lower-income with either older populations, poor background health conditions, or both. What happens when Maine and Alabama are forced into bidding wars with less vulnerable but richer states like North Dakota and Virginia?
One could imagine a flexibility-based case for the decentralized approach if the federal government were currently filling state coffers with money, so every governor had a health budget with which to play this game.
But instead, the federal government is offering limited financial assistance to states even as their sales and restaurant tax revenues are collapsing. Some will be unable to buy what they need, others will be forced to adopt massive austerity measures to pay for masks and gowns, and fundamentally, resources will be allocated according to the happenstance of who has cash on hand rather than in furtherance of any coherent national strategy.
And that, of course, is because there is no strategy.
Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN on Thursday that he doesn’t understand why some states have yet to issues shelter-in-place orders. But he knows the reason is they haven’t received clear instructions — perhaps paired with carrots and sticks — from the federal government to do so. By saying this publicly, he is clearly trying to do his best to play the coordinating role that the president is abdicating, but there’s no substitute for leadership from the man who’s actually in charge. As many wags have noted online, the current patchwork solution is a bit like establishing a peeing section in a swimming pool.
How does this end?
Decentralization has its merits, of course. As recently as mid-March, Trump was comparing Covid-19 to seasonal flu and suggesting that stringent social distancing measures were unwarranted. Had he had the means or inclination to impose this view nationally, states like Ohio, California, and Washington that acted decisively would be much worse off today. If you take incompetence for granted, it may be better to pair it with absentmindedness and sloth than the opposite. But to climb out of this catastrophe is going to take something better than muddling through.
Broadly speaking, the United States is undertaking a broad suite of restrictions that aim to get the virus under control. Once it is, we can expect some level of normalcy to begin to return at some pace, but it will still be a while until a vaccine exists and then some additional time before everyone can be vaccinated.
A natural question that a lot of people have: How is this all supposed to work, exactly? By what criteria will we decide that the virus is now “under control”? And when we begin to lift restrictions, which will be the first to go? Which places will try to lift them? When a vaccine exists and the first doses roll off the assembly line, who will get them?
Even if we don’t know the exact answers to these questions, it might be nice to at least know who will make the decisions.
Right now the White House has no document or set of words that explain its strategy. But lifting restrictions in a haphazard, decentralized way risks disaster. If one state goes too far too soon and creates a new outbreak, it’s easy enough to surge in resources while shifting back to shutdown. But if 17 states make the same mistake all at once, there’s a huge risk of uncontrolled national spread.
Alternatively, if everyone gets so spooked that no governor wants to be the first to run the risk of opening things up again, the economy will keep spiraling downward. Only the president has the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health at his disposal, and only the president has the authority to make guarantees about what help the federal government will and won’t provide.
It should be his job to map out how he wants this to work. But he’s not doing that, any more than he’s making decisions currently about where medical supplies should go. He’s tweeting, he’s grandstanding on television, and he’s even got the Secret Service back to lining his pockets by renting equipment at his golf courses. Far from articulating a failed response strategy, he’s not leading any kind of response at all.