In times of crisis, people look to the president for leadership. But the media's criticism of Donald Trump misses the point: New York is sick not because of POTUS, but because of an endemic rot at every level of government.
New York is sick. The Empire State accounts for more than a third of the US' Covid-19 cases, and in New York City, more than 30,000 people are infected and nearly 700 dead. With the situation worsening by the day, Democrats and the media have pointed the finger squarely at President Trump.
Trump "will not lift a finger to help his hometown," NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio told NBC News last Sunday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused the president on Sunday of delaying the transport of vital equipment to cities like New York. "As the president fiddles, people are dying," she told CNN's Jake Tapper.
"Do you think there's blood on the president's hands?" NBC's Chuck Todd asked Democratic candidate Joe Biden on Sunday morning.
A bold statement indeed. However, Trump's response to the virus has been about as thorough as possible, despite his initial hesitation to take the outbreak seriously. His administration has called up military reservists, streamlined federal funding for National Guard deployments, paused evictions and student loan repayments, ordered private companies to manufacture medical equipment, and passed a $2.2 trillion stimulus bill.
That's not to be confused for sycophancy. Trump could have rolled out mass testing earlier, could have ordered businesses closed earlier, and could have pressed Congress harder for a stimulus bill less packed with cash for Republican corporate bailouts and Democrat funding for arts and refugees.
But the power of the federal government has limits, and hammering Trump for his response neglects the role played by state and local officials
In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo has portrayed the shortage of ventilators there as a struggle between his administration and Trump's. "FEMA sent us 400 ventilators. We need 30,000," Cuomo said at the beginning of the week. However, Cuomo has himself admitted that his figure is a worst-case estimate, and that the state has not yet had to dig into its own stockpile of the devices.
Cuomo, to his credit, is scrambling to secure ventilators for his state - even if it means publicly badgering Trump for more of the US' limited national stockpile. But New York has been short on the lifesaving devices for years. In a 2015 report, the New York State Department of Health noted that in the event of a pandemic on the scale of the 1918 Spanish Flu, the city would experience a shortage of 15,000 ventilators. Though the paper did not outright recommend that Cuomo's administration buy more, its publication did not rouse him into action.
Likewise, Mayor de Blasio has pleaded with Trump to deploy the federal military to New York. Last Friday he told the president to "get the hell out of the way and let the military do its job." Since then, Trump has called up reservists and veterans, sent a hospital ship to New York, and activated the Defense Production Act, while the Army has begun setting up field hospitals in the city.
De Blasio accused Trump on March 15 of "playing catch-up" with the virus. However, two days earlier he told New Yorkers to "go about your lives" as normal.That same week he told a radio host that asymptomatic carriers can't transmit the disease, refused to cancel the city's St. Patrick's Day parade until convinced to, and personally told a woman returning from Italy not to self-isolate.So exhaustive is the list of his missteps that New York Magazine described the week as "the worst stretch of the mayor's six-year tenure."
"It has been just a constant struggle to get the mayor to take action,"one City Council member told the magazine.
With a record as patchy as his own, it's no wonder de Blasio has seized the opportunity to attack Trump on cable TV. Better to swing wildly than absorb punches at home.
Squandered opportunities and clueless leadership can be found at all levels of government. Hours before de Blasio finally ordered public schools closed on March 15, the management at one school in the Bronx warned staff that they could be fired for telling students to stay at home, even after a member of staff tested positive for the deadly virus, the New York Post reported on Saturday. The New York City Department of Education is currently under investigation for forcing several schools in the city to remain open, including one in Brooklyn where five teachers tested positive.
The failures go beyond New York too. After pressing Trump for weeks to declare a national disaster and send aid to her state, and sparring with the president on Twitter, a FEMA spokesman said on Wednesday that Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had not formally requested a major disaster declaration.Only when news of this delay broke did Whitmer send the request to the federal government, which was approved a day later.
Similar stories have surely played out in other states, and at other levels of government.
When the pandemic eventually abates, Trump will be judged endlessly on his reaction to it. His future in the White House may depend on it. However, the president sits at the top of a massive bureaucratic machine, and his successes and failures shouldn't overshadow those of the governors, mayors and administrators below.
Defeating Covid-19 depends on a decisive response from every elected official in America, not just the most visible one.
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