The rapid spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus is, among many other things, a test of America’s system of government. In particular, a crisis like this challenges the federal executive. Decision, activity, and dispatch are the watchwords of the presidency, as Alexander Hamilton argued in Federalist No. 70: The Congress sets frameworks for the future action of the government, the judiciary reviews and assesses past actions, but the president acts in the present, and in response to events.
So how is the executive branch doing in responding to the crisis? The easy answer is that it seems to be struggling and overwhelmed. But it is worth thinking through just what ought to seriously trouble us about the failures of mobilization against the pandemic so far, and what would be better understood as an unavoidable consequence of the sheer immensity of the problem — which, after all, the president didn’t cause.
Disaster response confronts modern, liberal societies with a profound challenge. On the one hand, the core promise of Enlightenment, liberal civilization is that it will build systems — scientific, technological, and political — that will protect us from the ravages of nature and keep us safe, healthy, and prosperous. When nature threatens to overwhelm our defenses, we expect and demand that these systems will mobilize to respond. However immense and unexpected the danger, we treat failures to answer it swiftly and effectively as instances of gross incompetence.
On the other hand, the same liberal framework also promises us a great deal of personal freedom. And that sort of freedom requires constraints on what government can do to us, and even for us. To foster an environment friendly to liberty, competition, and dynamism, government will, we expect, mostly enforce uniform rules, address unmet needs, and let a hundred flowers bloom.
But a government friendly to freedom in these ways will have real trouble responding to massive, unexpected dangers on our behalf. It won’t be able to instantly mobilize so as to flawlessly evacuate millions from the path of a terrible storm or to swiftly rescue earthquake victims, or to stop an aggressive pandemic in its tracks. We wouldn’t really want a government that could do all that at the drop of a hat — after all, what would that government do with all that power the rest of the time? The callous brutality of China’s regime offers a clue. And China’s own bungled early response to COVID-19 suggests that even a government with the capacity for instant mobilization will have a hard time with many unforeseen crises because it will tend to be rigid, dishonest, and impervious to bad news.
What we should want, therefore, is a government that may be overwhelmed by a vast, unforeseen problem at first but will then be able to quickly mobilize, learn from mistakes as it goes, and in relatively little time work itself toward massive and effective action. Such a government could capitalize on the advantages of freedom to deliver on the promise of keeping us safe. This is a lot to ask, but it has been the general pattern of successful American government responses to crises — be they wars, economic calamities, or natural disasters.
This is the standard against which to measure our response now. That our lives are disrupted is not a failure of government. That it takes time to gear up is not the president’s fault. The question to ask is not what our very way of life prevents us from doing, but what we should be good at that we aren’t doing well.
It is nearly impossible to achieve the perspective necessary to focus on this question early in the effort to mobilize, when everything seems to be going wrong. In any response to a major unanticipated crisis, good choices will mean trouble averted (and so will be hard to notice), while bad choices will create bottlenecks in the way of mobilization and so will draw intense attention and criticism. Mistakes that were far from obvious in the moment can soon look like wild and inexplicable misjudgments. The question isn’t whether such bottleneck errors will arise; they always do. The question is how our government responds to them and how it then prepares for foreseeable further problems.
In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, the early bottleneck error has clearly been the approach of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to testing for the virus. It is easy now to say that this should have been obvious, but it was no more obvious than the many other judgments that public-health officials made as the virus sprinted across the globe. It was an error, and the government’s response to it could have been more swift and flexible. It is only now being made right — late, but still, it seems, effectively. The question we face is whether some lessons have been drawn that might inform the way key officials make decisions about the next difficult phase of the outbreak. Some of these lessons would have to be drawn at a systemic level — at the very highest reaches of our government. This can sometimes make the difference between a rough but effective mobilization on the fly and a colossal rolling failure.
And it is here that real criticism seems to be warranted. The problem is not that our government wasn’t fully prepared for the swift global spread of a novel virus, or even that it has made some serious mistakes as a result. The problem is that its upper reaches now appear to remain overwhelmed by choice. Learning from mistakes in a crisis and making needed adjustments requires a structure of information flow and decision-making. It requires a system, preferably built in advance, for deliberation, the processing of criticism and competing views, and the formulation of complex problems as discrete choices. It demands that any such choices that can responsibly be made below the highest level should be — with the aid of clear general guidance from above — and that decisions that require the president’s own authority be brought to him in clear and concrete terms and then addressed decisively.
The Trump administration has never been prepared for crisis decision-making of this sort. Warning signs about that lack of preparation have been abundant from the start. The staffing structure around the president has always been too flat and chaotic. Crucial positions throughout the chain of command have remained vacant or filled by temporary appointees. In key moments, senior officials have ignored clear instructions from the president in an ad hoc way when they have judged them inappropriate — perhaps averting some disasters (as the Mueller report made clear) but undermining confidence in the decision-making process at the highest levels of our government. Advisers resist offering bad news, contrary views, or criticism to the president, knowing they would be ignored or worse. And Trump’s own inexperience and blinding narcissism have left him unwilling or unable to do better.
This decisional dysfunction has had some bad consequences. But not until this crisis has it become truly dangerous. The president seems still not to have come to terms with the mistakes involved in the administration’s mishandling of the testing challenge, and the White House now seems unprepared to learn, adapt, and lead as America contemplates the prospect that hospitals and health systems around the country could soon be overwhelmed by intensive-care patients.
In a crisis like this, not every decision falls to the federal government or its chief executive. But precisely because massive mobilization is involved, some crucial choices simply do. In particular, the president is called on to make hard choices about the deployment of resources and to convey hard truths to the public in a way that yields resolve and understanding. The absence of any real capacity to do this increasingly looks like the real bottleneck failure in this crisis.
That means that those who will take further steps toward mobilization need to take this absence into account and work around it. Senior officials throughout the federal government need to find ways to deliberate together and take necessary actions without elevating them to the level of presidential decisions. Governors have to be ready to make hard judgments on their own, as many have clearly been doing already, and to pressure federal agencies into playing their parts without enough help from above.
All this can be done. Our system really is good at mobilizing in a crisis and learning quickly how to manage unfamiliar terrain. But learning to manage a crisis without the full participation of the White House will call upon some muscles that have not been stretched in quite some time.
We have seen some of this around the early steps toward “social distancing” in different places. It may be odd to suggest that aggressively shutting things down is an example of our prowess for mobilization. But given our way of life, the willingness and the ability to radically constrain our activities and choices is actually a show of strength. In a free society, austerity is a form of mobilization. And it has taken shape largely from the bottom up, in school districts, in the business world, and then increasingly with prods from state and local leaders. The president largely resisted the trend at first, and as late as mid March had still not spoken in ways that might prepare the country for what’s coming and thereby explain the drastic measures being taken everywhere. But those measures have come regardless. And in similar ways, resources up and down our government and across our society may be deployed to help the health system gird itself a little better for the awful effort to come.
We are still very much in the thick of this crisis, and real perspective on our government’s performance is impossible. But at this stage, at least, it seems that many key officials are doing many important things right yet also that they have to work around some serious decisional dysfunction at the top. That, more than any particular misjudgment and more than the sheer fact of disruption in our lives, is what appears to require attention, criticism, and correction.
Until that improves, the response we mount will not be as well organized or clearly articulated as it could be. But we can be grateful that in our society not everything has to be coordinated from above. And we can be grateful for the countless men and women, in every corner of our country and in every facet of its life, who are rising to this grave and sudden challenge with compassion, creativity, and courage.
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