On Oct. 31, 2012, when Gov. Chris Christie (R) embraced President Barack Obama (D) — it was really more of a handshake — on an airport tarmac days after Superstorm Sandy ravaged the New Jersey coast, it sent an important message. Despite party differences and the fact that the presidential election was just one week away, the state and federal chief executives were “in it together.”
In times of crisis, this cooperation is crucial.
The current COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis unlike any we have seen in recent U.S. history. More than 10 times as many New Jerseyans have died because of COVID-19 than died during 9/11, and the numbers unfortunately continue to rise. It is unprecedented in both size and scope — even when the health crisis eases, the economic toll will continue for years.
A unique crisis requires a unified response. As our country comes to terms with the pandemic and the long-term changes to our daily lives it will entail, the cooperation demonstrated by Gov. Christie and President Obama in 2012 should remind us that our system of government is more efficient and effective when state and federal leaders cooperate across party lines. Governors are poised to continue to play a key role in the short and long term, but a partnership between the states and the federal government is essential for a successful response and recovery effort.
While sometimes overlooked, at least until now, governors hold significant power in the U.S. political system, especially when disaster strikes. A governor’s reach — and resources — are limited to his or her own state, however. In the most difficult times, this will almost certainly not be enough. While Gov. Christie likely knew he would pay a political price for welcoming President Obama, for example, he also knew that New Jersey would need the president’s federal resources in the rebuilding process.
COVID-19 adds yet another complicating factor: its extraordinary geographic scope. When a hurricane causes destruction in more than one state, governors know they will need to cooperate — and sometimes compete — to access needed federal aid and support for the rebuilding effort. This pandemic, however, has had at least some impact in all 50 states, setting up both intense competition between states and fundamentally different approaches within them. Governors have had to determine how to respond to these conditions. Our own Gov. Murphy has thus far taken a largely cooperative tone with the federal administration, including during a recent trip to the White House, placing his emphasis on obtaining as many needed resources as possible.
Cooperation must be two-way
But that cooperation must go both ways, particularly as states enter the crucial phase of considering how and when to ease lockdown restrictions. In mid-April, the Trump administration issued federal guidance as to how it would like to see the lockdowns end. But some states have since begun to reopen earlier than those guidelines suggest, and President Trump himself has not presented a consistent message on how — or even whether — the guidance should be applied.
Governors, in other words, will lead the “return to normalcy,” and the process will likely look different in different states. This is appropriate to a point. Circumstances here in New Jersey might require a different approach than those in another state. But given that a virus does not respect state borders — and that further national and regional outbreaks are likely — consistent national guidelines and messaging are necessary. That consistency is currently lacking. Governors have tried to fill the gap with creative solutions: Regional groups of governors have, for example, created consortiums to coordinate their reopening plans.
It’s a good start.
However, these agreements are missing an essential party. In a crisis this vast and demanding, governors need to be able to communicate and cooperate not only with each other, but also with a dependable federal partner to truly execute the most efficient possible response.
Governors, in other words, cannot do this alone. Whether by hug or by handshake (or from a safe six-foot distance), 50 governors and the president of the United States must find a way to come together to negotiate the way forward. The nation is depending on it.