NEW YORK, NY – MARCH 24: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks to the media at the Javits Convention Center which is being turned into a hospital to help fight coronavirus cases on March 24, 2020 in New York City. New York City has about a third of the nation’s confirmed coronavirus cases, making it the center of the outbreak in the United States. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)
In parliamentary governments, opposition parties form shadow cabinets to offer alternatives to the policies of ruling parties.
Recently, Afghanistan took the idea of shadow government one step further, swearing in two presidents at the same time.
In the U.S., multiple shadow leaders have emerged during the coronavirus crisis.
Former Vice President Joe Biden is giving regular briefings to show how he would handle the pandemic differently from the Trump administration. Two weeks ago, he offered his own plan for stemming the virus.
The daily updates of Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, which contains nearly one-half of all reported cases of the virus, are covered by the national media as if he were president. He helped form a regional coalition of states, now including Pennsylvania, which is coordinating response efforts.
Gov. Tom Wolf and Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, have imposed the heaviest restrictions on the southeastern corner of the state, where most incidents have appeared. Wolf’s order to close businesses statewide that are “non-life-sustaining” has encountered significant pushback.
All of these mediation efforts are aimed at “flattening the curve,” so the health care systems of each state will have sufficient capacity to treat the afflicted. With the number of reported cases increasing exponentially, some hospital networks are already approaching their limit.
Meanwhile in Congress, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and the Democratic majority took the lead in passing the first two laws dealing with the crisis, an emergency $8.3 billion package and a $100 billion relief measure that provided free coronavirus testing and paid sick leave to virus victims.
To combat what is expected to be a major economic downturn, the Republican-controlled Senate is considering a $2 trillion recovery bill.
Philanthropies, including the Gates Foundation and Michael Bloomberg’s charities, are stepping up efforts to develop vaccines and treatments, as well as support local governments dealing with the crisis.
Biden, governors, mayors, Congressional leaders, and humanitarians are filling a vacuum left by the absence of presidential leadership for the last two months.
Despite repeated warnings from the intelligence community as far back as early January, President Donald Trump downplayed the threat from the virus. On the day before his widely-panned address to the nation from the Oval Office, Trump told Fox News personality Sean Hannity to stay calm, the virus “will just go away.”
Trump’s advisory process is in disarray. Public health specialists have been ignored, and any professional advice that gets through is not well received by a president who fancies himself an expert and is obsessed with the stock market.
Not all of these problems can be laid at Trump’s feet, but he has missed numerous opportunities to exert strong leadership.
Most notably, the president has failed thus far to fully mobilize the military to support the medical community’s efforts, and to implement the Defense Production Act’s broad authority to nationalize industry.
Instead, Trump disavowed responsibility for the testing crisis, punted the supply problem to the states (“we’re not a shipping clerk”), blamed China for the virus itself, and lashed out at Barack Obama, Democrats, the media, and immigrants to distract from his administration’s deficiencies.
Furthermore, the president has used daily briefings to play to his political base. Amplified by Fox News and right-wing talk radio, his sugarcoated statements, not to mention fabrications, have resulted in Republicans taking the virus less seriously than has the rest of the nation.
Trump and his allies are gaslighting supporters that the president has exercised strong leadership from the start of the crisis. Now he is flirting with the idea that the nation can return to business as usual.
Needless to say, more approve than disapprove of how he is managing the emergency.
While that may seem astonishing, the public normally rallies around the president in crisis times, though the effect is mitigated by partisanship.
As the disaster deepens, it is possible that Trump will finally get a handle on what it means to be a “wartime president.”
If he doesn’t, the irony is that if the shadow leaders succeed in lessening the impact of the virus, the one who stands to benefit is Trump.
Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @McCleleF.
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