The president, the governors, and the path out of the pandemic

The president, the governors, and the path out of the pandemic
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As the death toll from COVID-19 continues to surge in the United States, it becomes painfully clear that the government response was rudderless. From the provision of needed supplies to the availability of testing to the preconditions for relaxing stay-at-home restrictions, experts have decried the absence of a national strategy. At the same time, however, President TrumpDonald John TrumpKimberly Guilfoyle reports being asymptomatic and 'feeling really pretty good' after COVID-19 diagnosis Biden says he will rejoin WHO on his first day in office Lincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad MORE’s attempt to assert his authority to drive a national strategy — his claim that he had the power to override the state-issued restrictions — was met with a stern rebuke from legal experts and governors of both parties, and resulted in a rare retreat by the president.

Where is the disconnect?

Here’s the truth: The current state-centric model for emergency response is ill-suited to a pathogen that does not respect political boundaries. There is a real need for a response that is nationally coordinated, but existing protocols, funding levels and principles of federalism contemplate a complementary role for the federal government in emergency response. Given that the pandemic has no respect for funding or federalism, the question continues to be: What is the proper role for the president?

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Presidential leadership is essential notwithstanding the limits on the president’s power. I believe his leadership is best asserted in mobilizing American power and ingenuity to advance the following truly national strategic goals:    

  • Insisting on universal testing as a top national security priority;  
  • Supplying universal personal protection equipment (PPE) levels from the ICU doctors and nurses and first responders to individual citizens; and  
  • Supporting the redevelopment of a national manufacturing capacity to reduce American reliance on cheap foreign labor to produce goods that are essential to public safety and health in national emergencies.

Universal testing and tracking

Until effective treatment and a vaccine are discovered, there is only one path back to the resumption of normal life in the United States: universal testing — and retesting — of the public for an indefinite period of time. That has to be priority number one; sadly, however, the commitment to testing as a top national security priority has been halting at best. 

The recent news that federal funding for testing sites may be curtailed, and that the number of tests being administered has actually been decreasing, is the clearest indication yet that at some level the powers-that-be just don’t get it.  

Universal testing is not an aspiration; it is an imperative. 

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There can be no real assurance of progress until we are able to get a real-time assessment of the progress of the pandemic. The president alone can make that happen. He should announce a national commitment — with the urgency of President Roosevelt’s World War II mobilization of American industry and the resolve of President Kennedy’s commitment to go to the moon — to develop as close to immediately as possible the capacity to test over 300 million Americans, multiple times, into perpetuity. His unequivocal direction to the public and private sector must be that the U.S. will test and retest the entire population of the United States.      

In parallel, serological tests must be developed to look for antibodies to the virus that could reveal possible immunity consistent with the body of evidence surrounding other coronaviruses.  Serological testing will enable us to identify a potentially immune sub-set of the population that might be able to be phased back into the workforce, with appropriate protective equipment. With an immune certification, possibly some could get back to work and support others who cannot. 

The president is uniquely situated to make testing an achievable priority. That form of leadership would be welcome.   

Universal deployment and employment of PPE

A corollary to testing as a national security priority is the production of personal protective equipment on a nationwide scale. Industry and government must work together to manufacture and distribute sufficient quantities of PPE for a universal deployment to every citizen across the country for as long as the pandemic remains a primary threat.  

The first phase of this effort will focus appropriately on our nation’s medical professionals and first responders. In close tandem with this is the deployment of PPE for all critical workers — from those supporting the food supply chain to public transportation. All of these personnel should be provided with masks, gloves and disinfectant. Finally, beginning with the most densely populated and impoverished areas, and eventually extended universally, every citizen must be provided with and be ordered to wear PPE when they are outside their homes. 

Rebuilding America’s manufacturing base to meet national security needs

Underlying the difficulties the nation has been experiencing in producing enough testing and personal protective equipment is the stark erosion of the domestic manufacturing capacity to produce enough goods and services to provide for our common defense. This industrial decay has been decades in the making; reversing it will take years. 

But the president should take the lead in starting the rebuilding now. The pandemic has unmasked our vulnerability in permitting core manufacturing capacity to relocate without considering the potential effects on our disaster preparedness.   

There will be a time for the reconsideration of the allocation of state versus federal power during a pandemic or an emergency of truly national scope. In the meantime, with their roles relatively ill-suited to the emergency they are confronting, the governors and the president will have to talk their way through the crisis. The regional partnerships of governors are a positive step toward what may be a permanent model to adopt. 

The president should lead where his authority is unquestioned: setting a national public health imperative of universal testing and provision of personal protective equipment, and mobilizing American industry and the public to achieve those clearly defined aims.   

Continued chaotic half-measures, while understandable, are unacceptable; instead of talking around the testing and equipment issues, the president should make clear that remedying these deficiencies are his, and the nation’s, immediate priorities. That is the proper role for the president to play.  

John Farmer Jr. is director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. He is a former assistant U.S. attorney, counsel to the governor of New Jersey, New Jersey attorney general, senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, dean of Rutgers Law School, and executive vice president and general counsel of Rutgers University.