Let’s be blunt. What’s the reason President Donald Trump shuns a national strategy to stop a national pandemic?
Taking responsibility would bring accountability. Dodging both means no full-throated federal battle-plan. No swift and uniform nation-wide campaign to “flatten the curve” of rising COVID-19 cases.
A uniform approach would save lives, as Dr. Anthony Fauci keeps trying to tell us. But it would make it harder to blame the states.
To win in November, Trump wants to argue that the grim toll of the virus, especially in the hardest-hit places, is the fault of governors. Never mind that his administration dismantled early warning systems for pandemics. Never mind his deadly 70-day delay before taking action last month.
Feds as ‘backup’ rewrites US history
Never mind his unwillingness to lean on slow-moving governors to put in place stay-at-home orders. Never mind the failure to nationalize the supply-chain for health care workers’ personal protective equipment or to order the military to fly ventilators from where they are not needed to where they are.
Instead, the president says of the nation’s governors, “the complainers … should have stocked up” before the crisis. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is “in over her head.” And New Jersey “got off to a very late start.” After all, the federal government is just a “backup” for state governments.
That line (repeated three times in one briefing last week) rewrites American history. Every president since Hoover has used the same framework: The federal government is how we mobilize the massive resources needed in extreme public emergencies:
- Franklin D. Roosevelt crafted the National Industrial Recovery Act and Works Progress Administration, nationalizing employment during the Great Depression.
- Harry Truman sent in the military in 1947 after the Texas City ship explosion, the deadliest industrial accident in American history.
- Dwight D. Eisenhower shaped and signed a federal flood control program after hurricanes Connie and Diane.
- Nixon signed the Disaster Relief Act of 1974, authorizing direct relief assistance to families.
- Carter created the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 1979 and used the agency to respond to the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island and the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980.
- Reagan signed the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, a landmark expansion of federal emergency management responsibilities.
- George H.W. Bush sent $1.1 billion to California following the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 and put his transportation secretary in charge of the federal response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
- Bill Clinton sent in FEMA with the FBI after the Oklahoma City domestic terrorist bombing in 1995.
- George W. Bush issued a declaration of national emergency after the 9/11 attacks and created the Department of Homeland Security, the greatest reorganization of the federal government since 1947.
- During the Gulf oil spill in 2010, Barack Obama took direct responsibility for the government’s response.
Presidents over the last 85 years clearly have not shared Trump’s view of the federal government as mere “backup” in responding to disasters.
Why can’t the president say, “I own the problem,” as other leaders do in times of crisis, and issue the national stay-at-home order needed to keep the death rate down? To paraphrase James Carville, “It’s the accountability, stupid.”
Trump’s solution? “I leave it up to the governors.” Step aside, Harry Truman! “The buck stops there.”