When the public looked to government for help, government sometimes looked helpless or frozen or contradictory — and not for the first time.
The country and its leaders were caught off guard when terrorists on hijacked airplanes attacked the homeland on Sept. 11, 2001. The financial crisis of 2008, which turned into a deep recession, forced drastic, unprecedented action by a government struggling to keep pace with the economic wreckage. The devastation from Hurricane Andrew in Florida in 1992 and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 exposed serious gaps in the government’s disaster response and emergency management systems.
“We always wait for the crisis to happen,” said Leon Panetta, who served in government as secretary of defense, director of the CIA, White House chief of staff, director of the Office of Management and Budget and a member of the House. “I know the human failings we’re dealing with, but the responsibility of people elected to these jobs is to make sure we are not caught unawares.”
In interviews over the past two weeks, senior officials from administrations of both parties, many with firsthand experience in dealing with major crises, suggest that the president and his administration have fallen short of nearly every standard a government should try to meet.
Repeated crises have shown that government is rarely, if ever, fully prepared. Nor is government as flexible as it needs to be to respond as quickly or creatively as conditions often demand. Many factors contribute to what appear to be chronic weaknesses that can compound problems and reduce public confidence. Lessons learned after the fact solve past problems without necessarily anticipating future ones.
Leadership is important, and President Trump will have on his record what he did and didn’t do in the early stages of this particular crisis. But the problems go far broader and deeper than what a president does. Lack of planning and preparation contribute, but so too does bureaucratic inertia as well as fear among career officials of taking risks. Turnover in personnel robs government of historical knowledge and expertise. The process of policymaking-on-the-fly is less robust than it once was. Politics, too, gets in the way.
Long ago, this was far less the case, a time when the United States projected competence and confidence around the globe, said Philip Zelikow, a professor at the University of Virginia who served in five administrations and was executive director of the 9/11 Commission.
“America had the reputation of being non-ideological, super pragmatic, problem solvers, par excellence,” he said. “This image of the United States was an earned image, of people seeing America do almost a wondrous series of things. . . . We became known as the can-do country. If you contrast that with the image of the U.S. today, it’s kind of depressing.”
Challenge of being prepared
Government officials have worried about the threat of a pandemic like the coronavirus for many years. In the fall of 2005, President George W. Bush tasked Fran Townsend, his homeland security adviser, to develop a national pandemic strategy. What prompted the directive was not an imminent threat to which he had been alerted by advisers; it was because he had read John Barry’s book, “The Great Influenza,” about the flu pandemic of 1918.
Townsend recalled that when she convened an interagency meeting to launch the project, she met significant resistance from Cabinet officials who said they had far more urgent problems to deal with. Only with prodding and presidential insistence did the pandemic strategy get put together, and it was part of the Bush team’s handoff to the administration of Barack Obama during that transition.
The Obama administration ended up dealing with a series of virus threats, and that experience shaped the transition handoff to the Trump administration three years ago.
On Jan. 13, 2017, Lisa Monaco, who was White House homeland security and counterterrorism adviser in the Obama administration, convened a meeting in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. The session brought together the members of the outgoing Obama Cabinet with the Cabinet designees in the incoming Trump administration.
Attendees included the outgoing and incoming secretaries of homeland security, Jeh Johnson and John Kelly, who later became White House chief of staff. Tom Bossert, who was to be Monaco’s successor as White House homeland security adviser and who has since left the Trump administration, acted as co-chair.
The session dealt with terrorism and cyber and various other threats, but because the Obama administration had been through H1N1, the Ebola crisis and the Zika virus, Monaco included a discussion of what she regarded as the nightmare scenario: a new strain of flu that was a respiratory illness for which there was no vaccine and that because of globalization and travel patterns would be nearly impossible to contain.
“I don’t want to give an impression that we bestowed the answer key for dealing with such a challenging and unprecedented crisis,” Monaco said. “But the idea was to identify issues that would say these are the kinds of things you need to be planning for and thinking about now.”
What does it mean for the federal government to be prepared? “Oftentimes, the gauge is no mistakes, no criticism, just complete smooth sailing,” Monaco said. “That to me is not the definition of what it means to be prepared.”
She argued that preparation means planning ahead of a crisis, and having structures and organizations that can move quickly and principles that guide decision-making. “I think it’s about trying as best to minimize the chaos, particularly at the beginning,” she said.
Almost by definition, a crisis is something no one has or can prepare for fully. As Zelikow put it, what government is least prepared for is to do things “different from what it did yesterday.” Then the question becomes whether government is agile enough to figure out what to do next. On that measure, the record is not encouraging either.
Joshua Bolten, who served as White House chief of staff in the administration of George W. Bush, said, “It’s especially hard for government to be prepared for the unexpected or the unpredicted. That was certainly true in 9/11. When you think back to 2001, if you had said that, while it looks like there’s enhanced risk of terrorist activity in the United States, I don’t know that you necessarily would have checked on who was enrolling in flight schools.”
Plans and no plans
It isn’t that government doesn’t do planning. The Pentagon has contingency plans for wars, conflicts and disasters — “for anything everywhere . . . for everything,” as Panetta put it. But federal domestic agencies don’t have the same culture as the Pentagon.
“The Pentagon bureaucracy has the resources to do that. There’s a deputy secretary for everything,” said Johnson, who served as general counsel at the Pentagon before going to DHS. “Homeland security is a relatively new concept. The headquarters bureaucracy at DHS is still a work in progress.”
But plans by themselves are not a measure of preparedness. When Stephen Goldsmith, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, was deputy mayor of New York, his portfolio included emergency management. When he would ask about potential disasters, “They’d take out a black three-ring notebook and they’d say, ‘We have a three-ring notebook for that.’ ” That was only partially reassuring, he added, “because the chances of something happening not in a three-ring notebook is really high.”
Goldsmith assesses the situation this way: “I think we’ve gotten relatively good as a country — local, state and federal government — at the professional performance of routines. Our ability to accomplish the important routines of government on a daily basis is very high.”
But there are limitations, he said. “One is, are they conducive to imagination? Second, do they value the exercise of discretion throughout the system? And third, are they good at calculating the risk across agencies? What are the trade-offs of closing a country?”
The culture of plans on shelves can carry government officials only so far when disaster strikes. What then becomes more important are the systems in place that allow for quick action, improvisation and the rapid creation of systems to deal with the unexpected.
Andrew H. Card Jr. was secretary of transportation in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. When Hurricane Andrew hit Florida and there was criticism of the federal response, Bush tapped Card to go to Florida and take charge. He spent seven weeks there.
He found resistance within the bureaucracy to bend the rules. “I found that FEMA is a great organization, but they were all afraid to do things that weren’t, quote, by the book,” Card said. “FEMA was always being challenged . . . second-guessed after a disaster.”
Card learned through that experience and later as White House chief of staff to President George W. Bush during 9/11 and Katrina the obstacles that the combination of fear and bureaucratic inertia can impose when immediate and innovative action is required.
“Each bureaucracy has its own momentum,” he said. “The challenge in dealing with a disaster is addressing the momentum or the inabilities. If something’s not moving, it takes a lot of effort to get them to move.”
Lack of integration — public health with emergency management with economic assistance — across the government creates other obstacles. So too does turnover in personnel or vacancies in key positions, which has been a continuing problem particularly in this administration.
“If you do not have people who do not remember the lessons learned and you don’t have people who have navigated these enough to have relationships across the government, you can be hampered,” said Mark Harvey, former senior director for resilience policy at the National Security Council. “You never want to be exchanging business cards at a disaster scene.”
Andrew Natsios, a former administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development and current director of the Scowcroft Institute at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, said time is the most precious asset when dealing with disaster. “How fast you move will determine whether you control the course of events or whether you lose control,” he said.
Even presidents are constrained in their power to make things work. No president is fully capable of managing a crisis, which means having to rely on leaders in agencies who can help implement policies on the fly. In this moment, Trump is hampered by not having fully staffed the political positions across the government and by rhetoric that has denigrated career officials.
“President George H.W. Bush had more control over the federal bureaucracy than any president in the last 40 years,” Natsios said. “He developed a large following of loyal people. He had control so when he gave an order we did it. When I got an order from the White House, I did it. Part of his effectiveness was appointing people to control this very complex federal system that tends to ignore the president.”
The Trump administration has been particularly weak in that regard, with scores of long-standing vacancies in critical positions, hostility toward career officials who are vitally important in times like these and with an indifference to the importance of selecting competent political appointees, rather than presidential favorites, that began during the transition and has plagued the government ever since.
Success goes beyond a president’s capacity to engage and move the bureaucracy. A top-down system inhibits quick action when needed. Experts in disaster management suggest that a functional system empowers officials farther down in the government to act without having been ordered to do so. Coordination must be at higher levels of government; response should be at a much lower level.
Dealing with the unexpected
No plan survives its first brush with reality. What worries some people who have studied the issues of preparedness and government action is a long-term deterioration in the federal government’s capacity to do large-scale, improvised planning.
“It doesn’t mean it’s now uniformly bad, it varies. But the quality has deteriorated,” Zelikow said. “I think we’ve some illustrations in this crisis and I think we’ll see more, I’m sorry to say. People who want to can always turn these into partisan arguments, and there are some particular individuals one can criticize. But there are deeper problems at work.”
Zelikow pointed to an earlier era when the world looked at the United States as being capable of almost anything. He cited the Marshall Plan that helped save Europe after World War II and creation of the Berlin Airlift in 1948 when the Soviet Union shut off ground access to Berlin, which threatened the well-being of residents there. In that case, improvisation quickly turned into a system that eventually forced the Soviets to relent and reopen the city.
One case where such policymaking worked better was in the Bush White House after 9/11. Bush ordered the creation of a domestic consequences policy committee to oversee economic and other issues that needed to be dealt with, apart from responding to the terrorist threats, from reopening financial markets to putting airplanes back in the skies to compensation for families of victims.
“It certainly wasn’t smooth, but I recall that process working reasonably well,” said Bolten, who was White House deputy chief of staff at the time and chaired the committee. “People knew who the decision-makers were and where to go, both short of the president and how to get to the president on a decision.”
The Obama administration earned generally good marks for the way officials dealt with the Ebola crisis in 2014, consolidating decision-making under one person, Ron Klain, who had previously served as vice presidential chief of staff. He later recommended that he be the last disease-specific czar, that government needed a permanent expertise within the White House.
Improvisation in the midst of a crisis requires one set of skills, both in terms of leadership and the capacity for creative policymaking. “It’s really hard for government to understand every different collateral consequence that will occur until you start to experience it,” said former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, whose state was devastated by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
But how can government prepare for the next crises, which seem to come at a faster and faster pace? As Harvey noted, “This is a once-in-a-century event. We’re also at the point where this is our fifth or sixth once-in-a-century event in the last few years. Wildfires in California. Hurricanes in Caribbean and the Southeast. Floods in Midwest. Volcano in Hawaii and now this. Even before covid-19, we were in the midst of spending $149 billion on eight simultaneous large-scale recovery efforts when we’d only done one at a time before.”
Obstacles to planning
Planning for the next crisis takes money. Political leaders know there are rewards from citizens for successful response to a disaster but little support for taking preemptive action, especially when the cost is high.
“Governments have a very hard time securing money, for spending money for things that might not happen,” said Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of health and human services in the Obama administration and former governor of Kansas. “So any time that we are preparing for an unknown, to secure that in a tight budget year, to make sure dollars are set aside, was a battle in my time of government. There was always a more pressing priority.”
Even if the money is available, determining how to spend it can defeat the purpose of having it. As threats of terrorism were growing in the late 1990s, the intelligence community sought more money, but the funds were distributed without a strategy or clear priorities, such as building up Arabic-language skills within the government.
“If you examine the pre-9/11 run-up and how well government adapted to rising of terrorism,” Zelikow said, “the fundamental institutions adapted hardly at all. I think this is partly because this is not a partisan issue. It transcended both Democratic and Republican administrations.”
The absence of capacity for real planning could be especially damaging in the context of a threat farther out on the horizon. Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University, looks at what has happened with the coronavirus pandemic to speculate about how the government might deal with threats from climate change.
“In the United States, as you know, we had a solid two months’ warning and did nothing. And even now, in terms of getting testing and masks set up and the like, there are incredible delays,” he said. “So we might finally overcome those problems. But, you know, with climate change, you need a 20-to-30-year ramping up for it to work.”
Cowen said it’s inexplicable why the federal government, given all the warnings and evidence from China of a spreading pandemic, did not move more rapidly.
“You know, Trump was terrible, but you can’t just pin it on him. It’s far more systemic than that. The NBA [which suspended its season on March 11] really gets so much credit. I would put the NBA in charge of fighting climate change at this point.”
“The question for me is, does government retain a certain baseline level of preparedness . . . and then whether government is nimble and agile enough to take a baseline and put it on steroids when something occurs,” said Janet Napolitano, former secretary of homeland security in the Obama administration.
The performance by the Trump administration and the government as a whole in responding to the coronavirus pandemic will be thoroughly examined. The president’s handling already is a focus of criticism, and his reelection could hinge on how the public assesses his leadership next November. A national commission similar to that which was created after 9/11 could follow with a thorough exploration of what has happened.
Lessons will be learned and changes will be made, as they have after other disasters. Anyone looking for a few simple fixes — a fuller stockpile of material, more funding for public health, a designated agency to deal with the next new virus — will quickly find themselves disappointed. Those changes alone, however needed, will not have solved the underlying problems of a governing and political culture that, for all the good they can do when called upon, have limits, especially when officials are caught unawares and forced to act in new and unfamiliar ways.
“I’ve often wondered if democracy writ large is designed to be responsive rather than preemptive,” said Tom Ridge, the nation’s first secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. “One of the lessons perhaps as a result of this is we’ll be a little more inclined to be preemptive. With election cycles every two years, there is not a lot of credence given to people who take a longer view.”
The Political Reckoning
The Take is on hiatus. This series will explore the political dynamics surrounding the coronavirus crisis.