Unless there is a Biden administration and a Cabinet position or high-profile ambassadorship is offered to Gov. Phil Murphy, he will seek reelection next year and ask New Jersey voters and taxpayers to pass judgment on his first four years as the state’s chief executive.
There will be issues raised concerning his stewardship — taxes, spending, education, transportation — as opponents draw contrasting visions of the state’s future direction and argue that Murphy’s tenure has been riddled with shortcomings.
One issue won’t be contested, however — the administration response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Murphy’s performance in the face of the most serious public health crisis to hit the state and the nation in modern history has been flawless.
He’s exhibited decisive leadership and an instinctive grasp of what the public desperately needs in dangerously unsettled times.
Citizens look to their government leaders to assume charge, take control of events and become the point person in dealing with crises — natural or man-made.
They turn to their leaders to project a sense of calm, reassurance and strength.
Murphy has risen to the occasion and performed like a thoroughbred.
His media briefings have been incisive, straightforward and candid. He has levelled with his constituents — even when the news he’s imparting is dire — has clearly outlined and explained his actions and why he’s taken dramatic and unprecedented steps.
He’s warned more difficult times lie ahead and all should be prepared for them. And he’s done so in such a way that has instilled in people a confidence in his administration that all the resources at government’s disposal will be mustered to beat back the challenge.
He’s made the public’s concern his concern and lessened the growing apprehension felt as the number of infections mounted and deaths rose.
Credibility is the gold standard in rapidly evolving situations like the current one and Murphy has achieved it. His trustworthiness has been enhanced significantly by his refusal to engage in partisan political sniping, but by emphasizing his administration’s commitment to doing what is necessary to protect New Jerseyans even when it may cause personal inconvenience and frustration.
Confronting the crisis
And he’s confronted the crisis and taken personal charge two weeks or so removed from surgery to remove a malignant tumor from his kidney. (Note: I, too, am a cancer survivor and understand as only survivors can the physical and mental pressures caused by the treatment, prognosis and sense of uncertainty about the future.)
Placing personal health concerns aside — particularly serious ones — and concentrating one’s energy and strength on the crisis at hand requires an intellectual compartmentalization of the highest order.
Murphy has benefitted as well from the prominent role assumed by Commissioner of the Department of Health Judy Persichilli, whose detailed briefings have not only imparted solid information but also supplied the perspective necessary for people to feel comforted and to ease stress and anxiety.
Persichilli, called upon to confront a public health crisis of this magnitude, has been the epitome of what a Cabinet officer should be — decisive, confident in her abilities and possessing a strength of character that draws people to her cause.
Both she and the governor are acutely aware of the sacrifices they’ve asked of New Jerseyans — remain indoors, avoid social interactions, suffer economic hardships — while unable to predict with any certainty when it will all come to an end.
Persuading thousands of independent-minded and legendarily cranky New Jerseyans to surrender — at least temporarily — their accustomed daily routine and accept a dramatic lifestyle change is a daunting task. The governor has proven its equal.
For Murphy and Persichilli, it is a challenge neither could foresee. There existed no owner’s manual or template to guide them and no prior experience to draw on. They were on their own to deal not only with the compelling need to provide adequate and timely care for those struck by the virus, but also to convince a populace teetering on the edge of panic that fear was the larger enemy.
And they have come through. Repeatedly.
While the governor’s media briefings have been masterful exercises, he’s slipped on several occasions into cheerleading mode, lavishing compliments on his staff and others involved in dealing with the pandemic.
It is, though, simply the governor’s style. And given the exemplary fashion in which he’s acted, what the hell, he’s entitled.
It is, of course, impossible to predict when some level of normalcy will return, when schools, stores, theaters will reopen and resume business or when we can again enjoy all of the diversions we’ve come to expect as a part of our daily lives.
And when that happens, New Jersey will owe Phil Murphy a debt of gratitude.
While the political implications may intrude on Murphy’s thought processes occasionally, they are secondary at best.
If he seeks to become the first Democratic governor to win reelection in 44 years (Brendan Byrne was the last in 1977), his performance in the late winter, early spring and summer of 2020 will be on voters’ minds — not as an issue opponents can use to argue against his reelection, but as one supporters can use to justify it.