U.S. Politics and the Coronavirus

Sam Marrero, NESA Center

The framework through which the current U.S. political system addresses the pandemic is worthy of consideration. American governmental structure has historically vacillated between a centralized federalist system and a system of de-centralization, with affairs left to state governments. Clashes can occur, and that’s as obvious now as ever as we’ve occasionally seen the President and state governors giving press pandemic press conferences at the same time.

In practice, such a system allows for adaptability. Decentralization holds in times of prosperous stability, while centralization emerges as a necessity in times of crisis. One will recall President Reagan’s efforts to remove authority from the Washington establishment and return it to states. In contrast, after 9/11 the George W. Bush administration executed the most substantial reorganization of federal agencies in half a century by creating the United States Department of Homeland Security, which consolidated 22 agencies into one single cabinet agency. Notably, during this effort the Bush Administration authored the first pandemic response plan, which was updated in 2017.

This mechanism can ease conflict at the national level and is helpful during times of polarization. On April 16th, President Trump told the nation’s governors that the decision on when and how to re-open lockdowns was theirs, abandoning his claim from days before to his absolute authority on the matter. Adoption of the divisive Affordable Care Act and its accompanying Medicaid expansions was left to states as well.

The economic crisis is at least being addressed at the Federal level with the recent $2.1 trillion dollar stimulus as well as the possibility of another similar bill in the near future. The healthcare crisis, however, is being punted to the states. Timing of closures has varied from state to state. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp unveiled a controversial plan to reopen this week, drawing strong criticism from President Trump. This begs the question: does the current crisis call for leaving this matter to the States?

Unlike the federal government, states cannot print money. History indicates, from the large state budget deficits during the crises of 2008-2009, that states will run out of money soon. The federal government will have to deal with the reality of subsidizing states. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has so far indicated that he’d rather let them declare bankruptcy.

The million dollar question is: how will this crisis effect the 2020 election? It’s anybody’s guess, but recent polls offer some insights. Leaders poll better in the aftermath of a crisis. President Trump received a bump in the polls, but it was very muted in comparison to the bumps enjoyed by the vast majority of governors. According to project 538 of the New York Times, Trump gained about a 3% bump in approval ratings that seems to have worn off. Many Governors, however, continue to enjoy approval bumps of above 20%, some much higher.

Much media attention has been given to scattered protests demanding an end to lockdown and a return to work, but this is a very small number of people and is not representative of the mainstream American public, as the Governors polling indicates. Still, these protests should not be entirely discounted. Many of these people have lost livelihoods and the federal economic response may not be enough.

We know that the best predictor of incumbent Presidential elections is the state of the economy, but this year is off the charts. Had we continued on the previous trajectory, it would’ve been a coin flip given Trump’s approval ratings. Trump can of course run on the “wartime president” message that it’d be risky to switch leaders in a time of crisis, and continue to place blame for the virus on other countries. Either way, the opposition will have plenty of material to work with.

The views presented in this article are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.