Criticized in their first debate by Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden invokes Trump in bid to boost McAuliffe ahead of Election Day Business lobby calls for administration to 'pump the brakes' on vaccine mandate Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Afghanistan reckoning shows no signs of stopping MORE for fumbling the nation's response to the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump asserted he had orchestrated the "biggest national mobilization since WWII." Don't worry if you missed it, because it never happened. Early on, his administration decided to punt the responsibility to respond to the pandemic to the states — which meant they were left competing for limited resources, begging for federal guidance, and navigating a nationwide problem which they couldn’t solve on their own.
With deaths now totaling more than 230,000, it’s obvious that the U.S. response to COVID-19 has not been effective. President TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 panel plans to subpoena Trump lawyer who advised on how to overturn election Texans chairman apologizes for 'China virus' remark Biden invokes Trump in bid to boost McAuliffe ahead of Election Day MORE wanted to downplay the seriousness of COVID-19 because he saw it as a political problem and hoped it would go away swiftly. But when it was clear it wasn’t going away, instead of adapting his strategy, he remained unwilling to listen to experts or follow leaders' footsteps in countries like South Korea, Japan and China. Oliva Troye, Vice President Pence’s lead staffer on COVID-19, said even when it was clear that COVID-19 would spread to the U.S., the president didn’t want to hear it because his biggest concern was getting reelected.
There were multiple failures: Early on, the federal government neglected to do contact tracing of travelers returning from hard-hit regions, then the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) botched its early test kits, and the entire medical supply chain fell apart with limited personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers and not enough ventilators to meet demand.
Today, 10 months later, as America experiences a “third wave” of coronavirus infections, the Trump administration still has not mobilized the federal government to meet the moment. Specifically, they failed on three fronts:
Failure to use broad presidential powers:
The Defense Production Act (DPA) is a law from the Korean War era that gives the federal government the authority to compel private businesses to make and distribute needed items either for national security purposes or to address a national emergency.
The Trump administration has not shied away from using it: They have used it to place hundreds of thousands of orders for chemicals needed for military missiles, supplies for drones and body armor used by border patrol agents. These are the more limited powers of the law that are not considered controversial and were used back in April and May to compel businesses to prioritize contracts for medical supplies.
The administration has only used the law to award seven contracts for medical supplies since the coronavirus pandemic began and has not used the authority since late May. Yet even today, in November 10 months after the outbreak of COVID-19 in the U.S., domestic production of N95 masks is insufficient to meet demand. Furthermore, some key provisions of the DPA have not been activated. These would allow the government to take control of the supply chain for needed medical supplies. States and health care institutions have long urged the president to do just that. Still, the president has insisted that there is plenty of PPE and therefore using the authority granted by the law is unnecessary.
Failure to support state and local governments struggling to contain the virus:
States quickly realized that the federal government wasn’t going to help them get medical supplies, conduct testing, or figure out how to run schools during the pandemic. The federal government didn’t provide guidance and refused to help facilitate medical equipment procurement, so states often found themselves bidding against one another and the federal government.
Furthermore, states are constrained by strict balanced budget rules. Unlike Washington, they can’t run deficits, even in emergencies, so they also had to cut payrolls as their tax revenues shrank during shutdowns. States cut more than 1.5 million employees, which limited their ability to respond to the crisis alone.
Though back in the spring, Congress authorized a $150 billion funding to state and local governments in the CARES Act, it was not enough to support states through the crisis. President Trump has been notably hostile to the idea of providing more support. President Trump made matters worse by politicizing the issue and saying that “all the states that need help [are] run by Democrats.” The Dakotas would beg to differ with that statement.
Finally, the president has abdicated his responsibility to address one of the pandemic's biggest problems: the damage done to children who are not getting a proper education. Students could end up losing upwards of a year of learning. The failure to limit the virus's spread means that most children are currently in “remote” learning programs. This will widen the achievement gap for low-income, minority children who are already behind grade level and may now never catch up, and put an extra burden on families who do not have the luxury of working from home — forcing to choose between leaving children alone or not reporting for their jobs.
Failure to lead:
President Trump has even failed at what is arguably his most basic responsibility as president: to lead by example. Not only has he only lately agreed to wear a mask in public — saying that because the people around him get tested, it isn’t needed — but he has blatantly disregarded his own CDC’s recommendations after testing positive for the virus — going on a joy ride from the hospital, putting secret service agents at risk and holding public events too soon after his diagnosis. As he has demonstrated repeatedly, he thinks he is above the law and following public health recommendations.
As is so often the case with this president, his loudest and most outrageous claims are usually the exact opposite of the truth. When he insists that the White House mobilized the largest government response since WWII, you can take it for granted; that is precisely what did not happen. This failure to put Americans' health and well-being first — before his own political interests- has led directly to many more Americans dying and a prolonged economic privation only partially offset by congressional interventions.
The potential Biden administration has outlined what a true government mobilization effort would look like:
Increasing testing compacity from 30 million to 100 million per month
Mobilizing 100,000 Americans to conduct contact tracing
Using the full authority of the DPA to get the supplies needed to combat the virus
Appointing a national “supply chain commander” to coordinate the logistics of manufacturing and distributing protective gear and test kits
A pandemic pushes supply chains to the brink and requires a centralized, coordinated response. A president Biden will pull us out of this mess faster and better protect American lives.
Arielle Kane is the director of Health Policy at the Progressive Policy Institute. Her research focuses on what comes next for health policy to expand access, reduce costs and improve quality.