Gary Sasse is the founding director of the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University.
Providing for the public’s health is a primary responsibility of elected officials. Unfortunately, the pandemic has presented unparalleled challenges in meeting this responsibility.
On July 4, 2021 President Biden declared success in dealing with the coronavirus. The president said, “Thanks to our heroic vaccine effort, we’ve gained the upper hand against this virus.” The president’s comments were not hyperbolic. The development of the vaccine suggested that COVID-19 could be controlled.
However, factors and events beyond the president’s control rendered this optimistic scenario unrealistic. The most obvious explanation is that no elected official could have forecasted the advent and severity of the delta and omicron variants. The anticipated results were also impacted by misinformation which may have kept vaccination rates below what was anticipated. In a politically divided nation, anti-vaccination individuals were reinforced by some conservative politicians and their social media allies.
While no elected official was responsible for the unpredictable coronavirus, it is appropriate for voters to hold their government accountable for matters it could better manage and control. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat opined, “And if this White House has been a victim of events, it has also cooperated in its own victimization, taking a somewhat passive approach to the changing pandemic.”
"Examples of this can be seen in the Biden administration’s response to boosters when evidence first surfaced about declining vaccine effectiveness. As well as long lines documenting the lack of testing availability, and inadequacies surrounding the distribution of therapeutic treatments.”
During times of national crises, America has generally been blessed with a commander-In-chief who was an effective communicator. These presidents used their bully pulpit to mold public opinion to garner support for tough decisions. What a president can do, that no other leader can do as well, is to tell the people what the problem is, and what needs to be done to fix it. The Biden administration does not appear to have successfully achieved this.
A recent headline in the liberal Atlantic magazine read, “The new administration promised competency and efficiency, but it has struggled all year with consistent pandemic messaging.” CNN reported, “There has been deep frustration inside the administration over the complicated messaging surrounding booster shots, with several officials conceding to CNN that the restrictions on who should get one and when have only spurred confusion when it was clear immunity wanes for all age groups.” Peter Nicholas wrote in the Atlantic, “A unified government response has frayed as the White House continues to clash with federal agencies.” No wonder the administration’s policy updates may seem confusing.
When meeting with the nation’s governors, President Biden indicated there is no federal solution to COVID; solutions are at the state level. In our federal system battling the pandemic is a shared federal-state responsibility. The federal government’s role is to set policy and provide the necessary resources. Governors are responsible for making operating decisions to implement national objectives consistent with the situation on the ground.
Defeating the coronavirus requires effective gubernatorial leadership. While it may be too early to evaluate how Rhode Island is coping with the new variants, aspects of the program have generated controversy. It was reported that the governor was “ramping down” on COVID in the lead-up to Thanksgiving, while a confidential internal state report warned that COVID-19 was spreading rapidly in Rhode Island.
It is impossible to predict the future course of COVID. It could disappear or new variants could surge. Effective leadership will be needed to chart a course back to normalcy while protecting the public’s health. The defining issue of the 2022 elections is to elect such leaders.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Opinion/Sasse: Federal and state leaders can do better on COVID