This is what happened at the start of the Great Depression. When President Herbert Hoover failed to adequately acknowledge and confront the crisis, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was then the governor of New York, took aggressive steps at the state level, setting up an emergency relief program, for example, to help the unemployed.
This is exactly what is happening now. Millions of Americans have already upended their lives. While the coronavirus pandemic claims an increasing number of lives and cripples our economy, President Donald Trump continues to spread disinformation and attack the press, which is working to get accurate, timely information to the public.
For those who were hoping Trump might rise to the occasion, it’s likely that turning point may never come. Fortunately for the country, others are stepping in to fill the void.
We have seen strong examples of leadership from governors of both parties. Despite their flaws, a number of them have shined by making bold decisions, however unpopular they may be.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom led the way earlier this month in calling for the closure of bars and nightclubs, while ordering those 65 and older to stay at home. After Bay Area residents were told to shelter in place earlier this week, Newsom extended the order to the entire state Thursday in an unprecedented move that affects 40 million people.
Nobody likes to announce major disruptions, but this is a necessary step to slow the spread of this virus. Since Newsom ordered nonessential workers to stay home, other states — including New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Connecticut — have followed suit. “This is not a permanent state, this is a moment in time. We will look back at these decisions as pivotal,” Newsom said.
Meanwhile, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York has quickly become one of the most familiar faces in the nation. Besides his own willingness to take increasingly stringent actions to avoid the spread of Covid-19, Cuomo has been extremely effective when speaking to the public. When it comes to strong leadership, public presentation matters.
He has clearly conveyed what is happening and what the plan is. When he was criticized for his initial unwillingness to place New York City on lockdown, he explained in a deliberate manner that he wanted to avoid causing people to simply flee from the city to neighboring suburbs.
Cuomo has shown up to each appearance armed with facts and data. Most importantly, he exudes the image of a wartime leader who is working on this crisis around the clock, and who will remain at the frontlines until this is resolved. He never shies away from the urgency of the moment even while explaining how and why his state — and the nation — can remain calm.
Cuomo also offered a powerful contrast to Trump. Last week, the President told reporters, “I don’t take responsibility at all,” when confronted with his administration’s failure to provide widespread testing.
But on Friday, Cuomo fully acknowledged the disruption and economic ramifications of a lockdown in New York. He said, “I accept full responsibility. If someone is unhappy, if somebody wants to blame someone, or complain about someone, blame me. There is no one else who is responsible for this decision.”
When Ohio only had five confirmed cases, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine warned that the true number could be significantly higher and moved swiftly to shut down schools, cancel gatherings of 100 or more and ban visitors to nursing homes and assisted living centers.
DeWine, who has delivered sobering news to his constituents while offering reassurances that they do not need to panic, has enlisted the help of public health officials. DeWine’s mantra, after all, is: “Let’s bring in the experts, listen to them and then execute what they need.”
He has also formed task forces comprised of non-government officials to get a better understanding of how to tackle the economic repercussions.
All of these governors have significant missteps on their record. But all three, along with including Govs. Jay Inslee of Washington, Larry Hogan of Maryland and Phil Murphy of New Jersey, have offered positive examples of what crisis leadership should look like. As Cuomo said, “A crisis shows you a person’s soul. It shows you what they’re made of. The weaknesses explode and the strengths are… emboldened.”
With the presidential election months away, and the pandemic gaining full steam, we will continue to rely on our governors to lead the way.
Americans, who need them to take bold steps when the commander-in-chief is not in command, will also depend on them to provide the sense of confidence and calm that every citizen is looking for to survive, recover and rebuild.