Pandemic response

Evaluating American leadership in a crisis


Lily Riopelle

Evaluating American leadership response and actions taken in a crisis

Graham Hill, Editor in Chief

With the coronavirus pandemic sweeping across the world, and its effects being felt strongly in America, it is worth looking at the actions of leaders at all levels of government in how they have responded to this public health crisis. Some have forged onwards with firm and well-reasoned leadership and some have proceeded with utter incompetence, and these actions must be discussed when looking at how our elected leadership deals with uncertain times.  

Donald Trump: 

Recently, America has been fortunate enough to avoid any large-scale crises. This is not to say things have been perfect and wonderful by any means, but we have seen nothing akin to the 9/11 attacks that occurred during the second Bush Administration or the Great Recession that dominated the first term of the Obama Administration. But this outbreak has proven to be a disaster on a global scale, and the Trump administration has proven to be woefully inept. 

Two years ago, an Obama-era group, a pandemic response team that sat with the National Security Council, was disbanded by the current administration. It was never replaced, and no similar organization was created. This left the United States with no pre-existing group to watch for developing pandemics and organize a response to them. Add to this the constant dismissal of the virus up until recently, arguing it was no worse than a normal flu, it was just a handful of people who had it and so on, and it is undeniable that America has been left with leadership unable or unwilling to handle this outbreak seriously until it was already a catastrophe.  

With the exception of some qualified experts, who will be mentioned later, Trump’s decisions on who to appoint to leadership positions for virus response are questionable.  

Vice President Mike Pence was named head of the task force to handle the outbreak, but Pence’s record with medical science is shaky at best, and he is rightly assigned much blame for an HIV epidemic during his tenure as Governor of Indiana, when he delayed such basic steps as needle exchange programs, which are unilaterally recommended by health experts, because his personal morality did not line up with it.  

The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has also come under scrutiny for his role in this response. Kushner has no qualifications to hold the powerful positions he does as an adviser to the President (beyond, of course, being married into the family and the classic nepotism strategy of getting a job) and at times seems to misunderstand the basics of the system he is dealing with. For instance, when questioned about the White House’s apparent sluggishness in mobilizing resources for the states to use, Kushner stressed that federal stockpiles were solely for federal and national use, not for the states.  

This, of course, is nonsense. On the CDC website, it was even spelled out as policy that national stockpiles were designed to be distributed to states in times of crisis. Presumably to avoid criticism, this part of the website was recently changed.  


Joe Biden: 

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is now the presumptive Democratic nominee, had what can only be described as a pitiful response to the coronavirus. While the president dithered on taking any decisive action on the outbreak, not only was it a prime political opportunity for Biden to demonstrate that he possessed the ability to lead a nation through tough times, it was also a virtual necessity as people looked for an authority to trust on this problem when so much of the early messaging from the White House was confused and contradictory.  

And, instead of seizing the political momentum by showing himself to be a strong leader or providing what the country needed in terms of a national figure, Biden disappeared for the best part of two weeks. There was virtually no communication from his campaign, and the candidate himself never appeared in this time frame. When he finally did address the nation, he did so in an awkward pre-recorded speech dominated by meaningless platitudes.  

While it seems Biden has avoided taking much criticism for his vanishing act, with more media attention focused on presidential shortcomings and, more recently, the dropping out of Biden’s last competition for the nomination, his bizarre absence from the public eye during a time when leadership from both sides of the aisle was needed is concerning, to say the least.  


Bernie Sanders: 

The Vermont senator recently suspended his presidential campaign, so some may wonder if his inclusion here is warranted. The answer is yes, if only to contrast with the now presumptive nominee Joe Biden. 

Whereas Biden hardly appeared during the weeks when it became clear to most Americans that the coronavirus was a serious threat, Sanders hosted virtual town halls regularly, updating listeners with what information was available and encouraging them to follow the advice of experts and professionals.  

He also used this platform to raise over four million dollars for charities and organizations such as Meals on Wheels and emergency funds for workers laid off in the midst of the health crisis. He also utilized his campaign’s official app to have tools that connect people with coronavirus resources. 

Whether one agrees with Sanders’ policies or not, there can be no doubt that he used his position as a national figure to do good, funneling money to charities to aid those most affected by the virus, and made himself a visible figure who provided a reasonable and authoritative voice when the White House was disorganized at best and nonexistent at worst and Biden had seemingly fallen off the face of the earth.  


Ron Desantis: 

Throughout the country, a great deal of responsibility has been put on governors to respond to the crisis with a federal government that was often confused and occasionally contradictory. 

Desantis very firmly defended his decision to not initially issue a stay at home order, even in the face of medical experts warning that declaring one immediately was the only way to stop the state’s hospitals from being overwhelmed. The governor eventually relented and issued one in April, after nearly 30 states. 

Desantis was also in the national conversation for a time due to his refusal to close down Florida’s beaches during the spring break season where thousands descended on the state.  

The governor has also come under criticism from a variety of officials of all political persuasions for his lack of communication with lower-ranking public figures. Desantis’ predecessor, fellow Republican Rick Scott, now serving as senator, was well-known for regular contact with politicians in areas dealing with crises, whether they be shootings, hurricanes or other disasters.  

The mayor of St. Petersburg brought this up in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, where he noted that despite strong political disagreements between himself and Scott, he knew the governor would be present and communicative in difficult times.  

Unlike some other governors, most famously Andrew Cuomo in New York, Desantis also does not regularly hold press conferences. Indeed, some do not even appear on schedules, and thus no reporters or citizens are able to view these updates as they happen or ask questions of the governor.  

It is also becoming apparent that Floridians do not have much confidence in the governor’s handling of the virus. According to Morning Consult and FiveThirtyEight, in the last quarter of 2019, Desantis had a nearly 60% approval rating.  

In this pandemic, more polls were conducted in several larger states. The general trend was a double digit increase in a governor’s approval, a sign that people had faith in their state leadership while the White House was lacking. 

Desantis did not follow this trend. Instead, his approval rating dropped to 51%. To compare, here are the numbers of the governors of New York, Ohio and California. 

Cuomo: 47% before, 79% now 

Dewine: 49% before, 80% now 

Newsom: 42% before, 83% now 

When his state was in desperate need of leadership, Desantis seemed to mimic the response of the president, a close political ally, by similarly refusing to take decisive action and instead fleeing from any responsibility for managing this outbreak.  


Jane Castor: 

In her leadership, mayor Jane Castor has truly stepped up to deal with this crisis. With decades of law enforcement experience, Castor has taken a very no-nonsense approach to the virus. She issued a stay at home order for Tampa long before Desantis’ statewide one, and even in the face of disagreement from the county suggesting she was overstepping her bounds.  

She has also worked to provide more for the most disadvantaged in society during this time, cooperating with Catholic Charities to create a homeless shelter that was able to accommodate hundreds while maintaining appropriate distance and supplying food and mental health resources. 

Castor and the mayor’s office have also been busy on social media, updating citizens and providing the latest guidelines and information quickly and clearly.  


Doctor Anthony Fauci, Doctor Deborah Birx, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, Lieutenant General Todd Semonite: 

These professionals are all being grouped together for the purposes of this article due to their similar attributes. The doctors Fauci and Birx have both been a consistent and steady presence at press briefings, able to offer knowledgeable and informed answers to questions. Without a doubt, we are facing an unsettling time both across the world.  

This is not the time to be misled by leadership, like the president has with his goals of opening the country by Easter or severely downplaying the risk posed by the virus for months. Surgeon General Adams has likewise been a reasonable and authoritative voice who, when making the rounds on various news shows, made sure to stress the importance of social distancing and urge people to take the virus seriously.  

Lt. Gen. Semonite, head of the Army Corps of Engineers, must be commended for the work he and his department have done on the ground in terms of setting up temporary hospitals and health centers in places most affected by the pandemic.