Trump vs. the Governors?

Federal relief could bring governors and the president together—or nudge them apart.
March 28, 2020
Featured Image
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (C) stands with others in front of the USNS Mercy hospital ship after it arrived into the Port of Los Angeles on March 27, 2020. - The USNS Mercy, a giant US naval hospital ship, arrived in Los Angeles on March 27, where it will be used to ease the strain on the city's coronavirus-swamped emergency rooms. (Photo by Carolyn Cole / POOL / AFP) (Photo by CAROLYN COLE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Congress’s passage of a stimulus act—more accurately a “relief” act—will have many good effects. But it could also have at least one unintended consequence: It could exacerbate the political tensions between President Trump and the governors, precisely when governors are confronting their greatest challenges yet on COVID-19’s front lines.

Of course, we already have seen episodic friction between the president and particular governors—with New York’s Governor CuomoIllinois’s Governor Pritzker, Michigan’s Governor Whitmer. So far it has been the sort of punching and counterpunching characteristic of his presidency. But at moments it has had a more ominous undertone: such as when he mused that the federal government’s support for New Yorkers, particularly in supplying desperately needed ventilators, might depend on the president’s view of whether that state’s governor is “treat[ing] us well, too.”

The $2 trillion stimulus package may exacerbate this dynamic. For while governors and mayors continue to take public-health actions that impose immense economic burdens on Americans, President Trump and his administration will now primarily play a role of bringing economic relief to them.

The relief is welcome, but the political dynamic that it creates is worrisome. Not because President Trump might try to ration relief based on his political mood—an implausibly cruel scenario—but rather because his power to pay people, while governors burden them, significantly changes their respective political incentives at precisely the moment when the nation most needs them to row in the same direction.

We saw early signs of divergence this week, when President Trump floated the notion of getting the nation “opened up and raring to go” by Easter Sunday, less than three weeks away. Setting aside the fact that such an arbitrary deadline would be recklessly premature (as my AEI colleague Dr. Scott Gottlieb, formerly the head of the FDA during this administration,  emphasized on Monday), the simpler fact remains that the president himself is not the one to decide when the nation will “reopen.” Those are decisions that state and local governments, particularly the governors and mayors, will make.

But President Trump, ever mindful of the stock market as a barometer of a president’s political fortunes, may feel a different cost-benefit calculus. He will have greater incentive to call for governors and mayors to boost the Dow Jones by relaxing the limits being imposed upon people and businesses; or at least he will have an incentive to blame states’ risk-averse public-health measures for decimating the Dow.

We should not overstate these incentives, of course, for just as President Trump has skirmished on Twitter with some Democratic governors, he’s found ways to cooperate with others—most notably California’s Governor Newsom. Hopefully that cooperation will be the rule, not the exception, and differences between the president’s and the governors’ incentives will not result in direct political conflict.

But when Trump boasts of shunning governors who aren’t sufficiently “appreciative to me” (as he did Friday), we have to be realistic about the president’s instincts, and wary of the difference between his perspective and the governors’. If the Trump administration begins to announce that certain counties are “medium-risk” or “low-risk,” and the president encourages people in those counties to leave their houses, go to work, and spend the money that the government is distributing, how will he react to a governor’s announcement that people need to keep sheltering in place—by rallying behind the governor for protecting public health, or by rallying against the governor undermining federal economic stimulus?

There is no easy way to realign the president’s and governors’ incentives here, given the inherent difference between the president’s power to give Americans immediate benefits with only long-term costs, and the governors’ burden of imposing immediate burdens for the sake of long-term benefits.

Where this realignment is impossible, the system as a whole can function properly only if the press accurately explains the difference between the president’s and governors’ respective powers, responsibilities, reasons, and incentives.

Adam J. White

Adam J. White is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and director of George Mason University’s C. Boyden Gray Center for the Study of the Administrative State.