Pandemic Provides Defining Moment for Government Leaders

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Governors and mayors don’t run for office with the intention of managing emergencies. But when a crisis strikes, they become the public face of government response and need to be ready to communicate accurately and calmly.

Mike DeWine didn’t pull any punches.

At a news conference on Thursday, the Ohio governor announced he was ordering that K-12 schools shut down until April 3 and banning most gatherings of 100 people or more. Ohio had only five confirmed coronavirus cases at that point, but DeWine’s health director Amy Acton, standing by the governor’s side, said they suspected that well over 100,000 state residents were already infected — a number expected to double every five days.

DeWine made it clear that his state, like others, faces massive challenges. In response, he offered resolve but not sugar-coated optimism. “This is temporary. We will get back to normal in Ohio. It won’t happen overnight,” DeWine said. “We must treat this like what it is, and that is a crisis.”

Around the country, other governors and mayors have been offering similar messages. Many are out in front, holding news conferences on a daily basis. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced Thursday that he was putting his lieutenant governor in charge of most state operations so he could devote his full attention to the coronavirus crisis. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer held a news conference just before midnight on Thursday to announce a statewide school closure.

“Crises and disasters are what separates legislators from executives,” says Jared Leopold, a former communications director for the Democratic Governors Association. “For those executives who face a major disaster, crisis management becomes their defining legacy, whether they like it or not. Nothing else matters.”

Executives become the public face of the government’s response. Whether it’s natural disasters, mass shootings or a pandemic, their role is not only to share information, but to convey the sense that someone is in charge and has a plan that will see the city, state or nation through the worst of times. “That’s what the governor has to do in this situation,” says Bob Taft, a former Ohio governor.

“He’s been very visible, very prompt and as much ahead of the curve as possible in terms of taking decisive action,” Taft says of DeWine. “He’s also putting out good information and he’s obviously listening to the public health experts and the knowledgeable staff on his team.”

There are plenty of examples of politicians winning either acclaim or scorn for their handling of emergency situations. Sen. Joe Manchin’s enduring popularity in West Virginia — he’s the only Democrat still capable of winning statewide election in that increasingly red state — is rooted in his handling of the Sago Mine explosion as governor back in 2006. A year earlier, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour won applause for his handling of Hurricane Katrina, while Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco was widely criticized and decided not to run for re-election.

“Do it right, and you’ll be remembered as a leader for decades,” Leopold says. “Do it wrong, and you’ll be voted out of office.”

No One Signs Up for This

Politicians campaign on issues such as taxes and education. No one pledges to provide stalwart leadership if and when there’s a crisis. It doesn’t seem relevant until it happens. But, once elected, they end up being judged by how they respond to the worst challenges.

“People watch very carefully what leaders do during these situations,” says Jay Nixon, who coped with a deadly tornado in Joplin and the Ferguson shooting, along with other challenges, during his tenure as Missouri governor.

Leaders need a plan, Nixon says. It may change daily or even hourly, but having a plan gives them, their teams and the public some sense of where they’re going. They also need to convey information in a reassuring and convincing way. “You have to have a clear source of information that’s not only accurate, but one that people trust,” Nixon says. “Leaders need to remain calm and normal.”

When new governors are elected, they’re often warned by sitting governors they’ll likely need to respond to disaster in some form or other. Taft, who was in office during the 2001 terrorist attacks, said that event opened up governors’ eyes to all manner of contingencies.

“Of course, all governors expect to have to weather emergencies,” he says. “That was something new and different — like today, a whole new set of threats.”

Governors are well-equipped to respond. There’s a whole structured apparatus, whether it’s called an emergency operations center or something else, that offers them plans, a command structure and communications tools to deal with unexpected tragedies.

If you’re a governor, you’re likely to be faced with a flood or a tornado or some other event with devastating consequences you must respond to. No matter their other priorities, they’re always ready to go on an emergency footing.

“To me, governors and states are always well-prepared, because in effect they’re always training for it,” says Scott Pattison, former executive director of the National Governors Association. “Whatever one says about a particular governor, they know that’s the expected role and they step right into it and rise to the occasion.”

The All-Dominant Issue

When executives aren’t seen as responding swiftly and competently, it can imperil both their re-election chances and their broader agendas. It’s a well-established part of political folklore that mayors lose their jobs when cities don’t dig out promptly following snowstorms. “We’ve probably spent as much time on snow as we have on the budget,” Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said not long after taking office in 2015.

Andy Beshear was sworn in as Kentucky’s governor four months ago. Lately, he has been holding daily news conferences to provide updates on caseloads and policy changes. In recent days, he has called for schools to close for two weeks, for church services to be held virtually and for the state’s 200 senior centers to shut down in-person activities. “Let me say once again: We’re going to get through this,” he said on Friday.

People are not looking for uplift, but rather find confidence in knowing that there’s someone in charge offering a serious, smart response, says George C. Edwards III, a political scientist at Texas A&M University. “You get credibility from two things — one, from recognizing the problem as it is, and two, from acting,” he says.

One of Winston Churchill’s most famous wartime speeches begins, “The news from France is very bad.” When asked about the death toll on Sept. 11, 2001, Rudy Giuliani, then New York City’s mayor, said, “The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear, ultimately.”

“People want reassurance and so (politicians) give it,” Edwards says. “They want to know it’s going to work out. At the same time, what’s critical is credibility, showing you have a firm handle on the crisis.”

No More Rallying Around the Leader

“During crises, people turn to the government for leadership, including what actions to take and how to return to stability,” according to a 2018 communication study. “Leaders are responsible for and expected to minimize the impact of crises, enhance crisis management capacity and coordinate crisis management efforts.”

In Kentucky, Beshear has won praise, so far, for sharing information personally and presenting the advice and counsel offered by public health and safety experts. “Party’s aside (he’s not mine) Beshear has done an excellent job with all this,” Samuel Keathley, a resident of Martin, Ky., tweeted on Thursday. “He’s never seemed panicked; he’s also never made it seem like nothing. He sounds and acts like a leader.”

The 2001 terrorist attacks offer one of the most dramatic examples of a politician winning acclaim for response to a crisis. Within 10 days, President George W. Bush’s approval ratings had jumped from 51 percent to 90 percent, according to Gallup.

“Presidents must take charge of crises right away,” says Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, who chairs the political science department at the University of North Texas. “If presidents do well, the American people will respond with support.”

That hasn’t happened for President Trump. For weeks, Trump has sought to downplay the crisis, offering optimistic assessments that contradict warnings from federal public health officials. His speech from the Oval Office on Wednesday was hastily written and included a number of factual errors regarding policy positions that had to be quickly walked back by the administration.

“He’s not telling the truth and he is not trusted in that sense,” says Nixon, the former Missouri governor. “He doesn’t have a plan and he seems to be in a completely reactive mode.”

In general, Trump’s style is combative. His presidency has been disruptive, not designed to offer calming reassurance. His supporters have loved him for it, but there are more Americans, as measured by polls, that went into the coronavirus period already distrusting him.

“Trump has a very dedicated base who are absolutely steadfast, but he’s got an even larger opposition coalition that is equally steadfast,” says Edwards, the Texas A&M presidential scholar. “If you already hate him, you’re much less likely to be reassured.”

At the same time, the news media also has a problem when it comes to trust. That’s something predating Trump, but which he has encouraged with his frequent complaints about “fake news.” On Thursday, Megyn Kelly, a former news anchor and correspondent for NBC and Fox News, tweeted that while she didn’t believe Trump was a credible source, “we can’t trust the media to tell us the truth without inflaming it to hurt Trump.”

On Thursday, the city of Murfreesboro, Tenn., posted a statement on its website advising residents not to turn to media outlets for coronavirus information: “Unfortunately, today’s media know that negative or overtly controversial stories receive more attention and thereby generate traffic to their publications, broadcasts and websites.”

That assertion has since been deleted, but it spoke to the polarization that continues even in a country beset by crisis.

According to an ABC News/Ipsos poll released Friday, 47 percent of Democrats are “very concerned” about catching coronavirus, while only 15 percent of Republicans share that level of concern. Just 17 percent of Democrats say they are not concerned about being infected, compared with 44 percent of Republicans.

As the virus spreads and more businesses and activities shut down, public opinion will necessarily shift. No one can say how this will play out. No one can predict the ultimate costs in terms of health and mortality.

“It may take an event of this magnitude to shake people on both sides of the political equation,” Nixon says. “This may be that moment where, as a country, both Democrats and Republicans realized that there are some things that should be analyzed separately from political partisanship.”





Every American family basically pays an $8,000 ‘poll tax’ under the U.S. health system, top economists say

Princeton economist Anne Case speaks about “deaths of despair” in the United States at the American Economic Association's annual meeting in San Diego this past weekend. (Heather Long/The Washington Post)

America’s sky-high health-care costs are so far above what people pay in other countries that they are the equivalent of a hefty tax, Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton say. They are surprised Americans aren’t revolting against these taxes.

“A few people are getting very rich at the expense of the rest of us,” Case said at conference in San Diego on Saturday. The U.S. health-care system is “like a tribute to a foreign power, but we’re doing it to ourselves.”

The U.S. health-care system is the most expensive in the world, costing about $1 trillion more per year than the next-most-expensive system — Switzerland’s. That means U.S. households pay an extra $8,000 per year, compared with what Swiss families pay. Case and Deaton view this extra cost as a “poll tax,” meaning it is levied on every individual regardless of their ability to pay. (Most Americans think of a poll tax as money people once had to pay to register to vote, but “polle” was an archaic German word for “head.” The idea behind a poll tax is that it falls on every head.)

Despite paying $8,000 more a year than anyone else, American families do not have better health outcomes, the economists argue. Life expectancy in the United States is lower than in Europe.

“We can brag we have the most expensive health care. We can also now brag that it delivers the worst health of any rich country,” Case said.

Case and Deaton, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, made the critical remarks about U.S. health care during a talk at the American Economic Association’s annual meeting, where thousands of economists gather to discuss the health of the U.S. economy and their latest research on what’s working and what’s not.

The two economists have risen to prominence in recent years for their work on America’s “deaths of despair.” They discovered Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 have been committing suicide, overdosing on opioids or dying from alcohol-related problems like liver disease at skyrocketing rates since 2000. These “deaths of despair” have been especially large among white Americans without college degrees as job options have rapidly declined for them.

Their forthcoming book, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism,” includes a scathing chapter examining how the U.S. health-care system has played a key role in these deaths. The authors call out pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, device manufacturers and doctors for their roles in driving up costs and creating the opioid epidemic.

In the research looking at the taxing nature of the U.S. health-care system compared with others, Deaton is especially critical of U.S. doctors, pointing out that 16 percent of people in the top 1 percent of income earners are physicians, according to research by Williams College professor Jon Bakija and others.

“We have half as many physicians per head as most European countries, yet they get paid two times as much, on average,” Deaton said in an interview on the sidelines of the AEA conference. “Physicians are a giant rent-seeking conspiracy that’s taking money away from the rest of us, and yet everybody loves physicians. You can’t touch them.”

As calls grow among the 2020 presidential candidates to overhaul America’s health-care system, Case and Deaton have been careful not to endorse a particular policy.

“It’s the waste that we would really like to see disappear,” Deaton said.

After looking at other health systems around the world that deliver better health outcomes, the academics say it’s clear that two things need to happen in the United States: Everyone needs to be in the health system (via insurance or a government-run system like Medicare-for-all), and there must be cost controls, including price caps on drugs and government decisions not to cover some procedures.

The economists say they understand it will be difficult to alter the health-care system, with so many powerful interests lobbying to keep it intact. They pointed to the practice of “surprise billing,” where someone is taken to a hospital — even an “in network” hospital covered by their insurance — but they end up getting a large bill because a doctor or specialist who sees them at the hospital might be considered out of network.

Surprise billing has been widely criticized by people across the political spectrum, yet a bipartisan push in Congress to curb it was killed at the end of last year after lobbying pressure.

“We believe in capitalism, and we think it needs to be put back on the rails,” Case said.