President Trump this week, via Twitter, asserted his authority to take Americans out of lockdown.
….It is the decision of the President, and for many good reasons. With that being said, the Administration and I are working closely with the Governors, and this will continue. A decision by me, in conjunction with the Governors and input from others, will be made shortly!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 13, 2020
Trump has even created a “Council to Re-Open America” that includes his beloved daughter Ivanka, her husband Jared Kushner, White House economic advisers such as Larry Kudlow, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross.
Perhaps Trump is confused. At one point this week he referred to his own authority to close and re-open the country as “total.” Some of his peers have something like the power he describes. The president of France, Emmanuel Macron, has simply announced that the lockdown of France will be eased on May 11, starting with schools. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been given extraordinary authority by Hungary’s parliament in the coronavirus’s wake. But neither of these two men would refer to themselves as having “total” power to control their countries’ responses to the pandemic. Only Trump talks like that.
And, to be blunt, Trump does not have anything close to “total” authority to re-open the country. He can’t even re-open my children’s schools, which, incidentally, he couldn’t have closed down in the first place. No, the local school superintendent made that call, albeit while conferencing with other local superintendents and the governor. I sometimes dislike the decisions my governor makes; he unilaterally canceled all spring break for schools, forcing teachers to provide remote instruction during a period when, under normal circumstances, schools would not have been in session. But the police power on which these awful lockdowns are based resides with him, not with the White House.
That’s a good thing. No one person should be in charge of the nation’s response to the pandemic, because no one person has proven qualified to bear that responsibility on his own, and in all likelihood no one person could. Dealing with a very ugly situation at hospitals in Detroit, Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, has taken measures that strike me as extreme, allowing only the sale of “products necessary to maintain the safety, sanitation and basic operations of residences.” Suddenly, Home Depot closed its Michigan paint, flooring, and outdoor-gardening centers in response to that order. Suddenly, parents who might want to pick up a car seat to drive their newborn baby from another wing of the hospital cannot do so.
So no, one person does not and should not have the power to direct the actions of 330 million others, even in an emergency. Nebraska does not look like New York, which does not look like Michigan. One state’s needs should not be held hostage to another’s.
Instead, it is the people themselves who are powering these lockdowns. Polls show an overwhelming majority of Americans support temporary efforts to keep their fellow citizens indoors and slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Long before the orders went out to close restaurants and non-essential businesses, the people themselves, informed by news reports from around the world, began to restrict and modify their own movements. And no governor could possibly enforce state-sanctioned restrictions if the poll numbers flipped and four out of five began to oppose them, as I suspect might start to happen in the coming weeks.
The American people who will not return to an “open America” unless they deem it safe to do so. President Trump has stacked his Council to Re-Open America with family members and economic experts, as if he were putting a check on public-health authorities by raising business leaders to the same level. But people don’t return to work and leisure out of a sense of duty to the broader economy. Restaurants, movie theaters, and Major League Baseball parks cannot return to business as usual while this disease haunts Americans of all stripes. Schools will have trouble re-opening if teachers are getting sick and parents are getting litigious. All of Trump’s economic horses and entrepreneurial men can’t put the country back to work again.
There is something the president could do to help, though: He could begin coordinating the effort to build an American version of the testing-and-tracing regimes that have had some measure of success in East Asian countries while we race to find treatments and a vaccine that give the nation confidence again.