While the nation’s first responders are putting their safety at risk by treating coronavirus victims, President Trump has positioned his administration as the last responder. “We’re a backup,” Trump said at one of his daily briefings this week. “We’re not an ordering clerk. We’re a backup.”
With the nation facing a twin economic and public health crisis, it’s worth asking: What is the role of the federal government, anyway? Liberals favor an activist government deeply involved in society and the economy. Conservatives favor small government limited only to those tasks the private sector can’t accomplish. Yet even by conservative standards, we’re well past the moment when Washington needs to take over amid market failure. The Trump administration should be doing more. Way more.
Here’s what the federal government does seem to be doing: Ordering manufacturers such as General Motors, Ford and 3M to ramp up production of desperately needed medical supplies. Implementing the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill Congress passed in March. Loosening standards to speed development of coronavirus tests and the search for a vaccine. Encouraging people to stay home.
Also, a lot of complaining. Trump gripes daily about congressional oversight and critics who don’t “appreciate” him. He jabs at Democratic governors such as New York’s Andrew Cuomo for not stockpiling enough medical equipment for a crisis. He had a daylong public spat with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who wants Trump to set up a military-style command center to speed production of medical equipment. Trump got Schumer good by sending him a “very nasty letter,” setting a new leadership example for future commanders in chief.
Here are some of the things Trump should be doing instead of shooting spitballs at critics: Ordering the closure of nonessential businesses nationwide, as the government’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, advises. Developing a “road map to reopening,” as former FDA Administrator Scott Gottlieb of the American Enterprise Institute has done. Feeding and housing low-income Americans. Aggressively prosecuting virus profiteers. Put the National Academy of Sciences in charge of defeating the virus.
While the Trump administration dithers, the economy is collapsing. Employers shed 701,000 jobs in March, and economists think 20 million jobs could disappear in April. That would put us back to the employment levels of 1999. Every day the virus spread compounds the economic damage. It’s in Trump’s own interest to lead a rapid moonshot effort against the virus with every resource he can muster, instead of leaving it to the states. His own reelection will hinge on how quickly the virus relents.
Instead, Trump is choosing the worst possible time to show his small-government credentials. For obvious reasons, this week’s Trump-o-meter reads SAD, the lowest possible rating.
For an alternative to Trump’s heel-dragging, here’s a 20-point proposal by Andy Slavitt, who oversaw Medicare and Medicaid during the Obama administration. Slavitt would convert stadium space to intensive-care units in many cities, give front-line health care workers a $5,000 per month bonus and back an order for 2 billion N95 masks with a federal guarantee. He’d end tariffs on Chinese imports that slow the arrival of needed material and make aggressive deals with Chinese suppliers for needed goods. There’d be a testing target of at least two tests for every symptomatic person in the country, with all possible resources put behind the labs able to produce the tests. And much more.
The Slavitt proposal may not be perfect, but it illustrates many things Washington could be doing, but isn’t—most of all, flexing every muscle the government has. Appropriating money would require Congressional legislation, but any president who told Congress what he needed to end a national crisis would be likely to get it.
If Slavitt’s association with a Democratic administration is a turnoff, then check out Gottlieb’s proposal, published by a conservative think tank. That, too, calls for a nationwide shutdown, which Trump hasn’t done. There would have to be massive scaling of current tests, as quickly as possible. The government could even force the quarantine of infected patients through GPS monitoring. Gottlieb doesn’t get into which level of government should carry out each measure, but many can only be done by the feds.
In telling the states to fend for themselves, Trump has created a confusing patchwork of guidelines, with some mayors complaining that Trump’s own statements contradict the advice they need citizens to follow. States are bidding against each other for ventilators, forcing prices sky high. And all of this chaos delays a return to normalcy. If this is the role of government, we may be better off without it.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: firstname.lastname@example.org. Encrypted communication available. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.