Over the past week, Governor Andrew Cuomo talked about “shutting the valve,” slowly keeping more people at home and allowing fewer “essential personnel” out to work in healthcare, public safety and grocery stores.
At the same time, Cuomo’s been working hard to open the spigot of federal aid, getting the U.S. Navy to send a 1,000-bed floating hospital, the Army Corps of Engineers to help convert convention centers to temporary hospitals, and federal health agencies to ship stockpiles of ventilators, N95 filtered masks and cloth surgical masks.
“We’re not slowing it, and it’s accelerating on its own,” Cuomo said Tuesday, while sharing new projections that the state will need almost 30 percent more beds than previously expected, and in about two to three weeks rather than five or six. “We were looking at a freight train. Now we’re looking at a bullet train.”
Cuomo has thanked President Donald Trump for the support, while calling on him to do more. He has said greater quantities of beds, ventilators and protective gear will be necessary to prevent New York from being overwhelmed by COVID-19.
Shortly after Cuomo spoke Tuesday, Trump held a virtual Town Hall on Fox News, where one moment he said, "We're all working hard together. The relationship has really been amazing," and the next he said Cuomo was “supposed to be buying his own ventilators.”
"We sent them ventilators," Trump said. "They can't blame us for that." (After Cuomo’s press conference, Congressman Lee Zeldin, a Long Island Republican, announced on Twitter that “4000 more ventilators are being sent from @fema to NY over the next 24 hours.”)
The crisis has showcased the third-term governor’s tireless work ethic, attention to detail, and diplomatic skills, as he’s managed to cajole President Trump to provide more resources to his beleaguered state, which is now the epicenter of the pandemic in North America. But despite receiving high marks from many observers who are not long-time admirers—including Trump, intermittently— Cuomo in recent days appeared to be the unstoppable force that met an immovable object.
“The governor has been a tremendous leader during this process, but the governor has been very clear as to what his limitations are,” said Congressman Max Rose (D-Staten Island/Brooklyn). “We need a deployment of federal resources to lead the significant expansion of ventilator production, [personal protective equipment] production and a surge in hospital capacity. It is only the federal government that is able to do that.”
The president, Rose maintained, must order manufacturers to produce more of what New York and other states need. Trump has signed the Defense Production Act, a war-time authorization to force quotas and timetables on private industrial companies, but he has yet to actually wield the DPA. On Monday, he introduced the Supply Chain Stabilization Task Force, headed by a rear admiral from the Joint Chiefs of Staff who specializes in procurement and logistics.
“Businesses across America are stepping up, and maybe as never before in our history,” Vice-President Michael Pence, Trump’s point man on coronavirus, said at a briefing. “And I know I speak for the President, when I say how grateful and proud we are for that.”
Cuomo has been adamant that what Pence called “the generosity of businesses” is not enough.
“Today we can get masks and gowns to anyone who needs them—I can't promise you next week or the week thereafter,” Cuomo said. “And that's why I want to see the federal government do this federal Defense Production Act and stop this ad hoc volunteerism.”
Cuomo’s supporters in Washington say Cuomo appears to be doing everything politically possible.
“I think he's doing exactly what he can do,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), reserving most of her criticism for the president’s limited use of the Defense Production Act. “He signed it [last] Wednesday, but he still isn't willing to activate it, and he should. It's absolutely essential that we have those powers in place along with a federalized and nationalized medical supply chain.”
But getting the country’s first businessman president to mandate production quotas for private businesses could be a bridge too far. And Trump appeared to be getting push-back from advisors who passionately favor the free market over intervention.
"We're getting what we need without putting the heavy hand of government down," Peter Navarro, the president’s Director of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, told CNN on Sunday. "My job at the White House now is to help marry the full force of the federal government with the full power of private enterprise to mobilize our industrial base and thereby quickly get what we need.”
But in a crisis of this scale, which Rutgers History Professor David Greenberg, characterized as a “hybrid” between a natural disaster and a war, modern presidents typically shouldered most of the response—or faced political peril.
The issue, Greenberg said, is not only how widespread the pandemic is, but the timing.
“Certain states are most hard hit right now and need the most help, so those governors become the most active lobbyists of the federal government,” he said.
But eventually, many states will need help – perhaps all of them. And that suggests Washington should intervene early and aggressively with “a national strategy where resources are being allocated,” to prevent states from competing against each other for things like ventilators and masks.
Greenberg wrote a book on President Calvin Coolidge, who only reluctantly offered federal aid to southern states inundated by Mississippi floods in 1927. Disaster response had never before been part of a president’s portfolio. Coolidge’s point man, Herbert Hoover, did such a good job that states confronting an “act of God” have turned to the federal government for help ever since.
Hoover, a former businessman, went on to become president—and later insisted the federal government play a minimal role in responding to the Great Depression.
“To have Trump return to this model, where he tells governors they're better off trying to do this on their own is really troubling,” Greenberg said. “It suggests that there's really been an ignorance of what we've learned in terms of public policy over the last 80 to 100 years.”