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Policy Style and The US Policy Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Rebuttal to Lawrence D. Brown’s Fomenters of Fiasco

Kristin Taylor, Rob DeLeo, Thomas Birkland and Deserai Anderson Crow

Abstract

Through the lens of policy style that we respectfully disagree with Professor Brown’s assessment of the United States’ botched COVID-19 pandemic response as being exclusively or even primarily explained by electoral concerns. Although we agree that the electoral concerns of many actors in the response were important, reducing every aspect of the botched policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic to an electoral calculus is far too narrow. It overlooks important factors, particularly the interaction between public trust in government and a country’s policy style during times of crisis.

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1As scholars of public policy who seek to understand the role of crises and disasters in the policy process, we read with keen interest the recent Forum article in the International Review of Public Policy, “Fomenters of Fiasco: Explaining the Failed Policy Response to COVID-19 in the United States” by Lawrence D. Brown. In this piece, Professor Brown persuasively argues that the botched policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is best explained by the electoral concerns of then President Trump, presidential candidate Joseph R. Biden, and members of Congress seeking re-election. Further, he argues that electoral concerns were fueled by the political salience of addressing the spread of the virus and bolstering the economy (Brown, 2021). As he frames the problem, “The most important single fact about the US policy response to COVID-19 is, arguably, that the crisis struck nine months before the presidential election of 2020.” (2021, p. 218).

2We fully agree with Professor Brown’s argument that electoral concerns played a critical—perhaps even central—role in shaping the policy outcomes observed during the pandemic. Building on his findings, we would like to highlight a conceptual framework that situates electoral politics within a larger cultural, social, and institutional context. Specifically, the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic can also be conceptualized as the byproduct of an interaction between public trust in government and a country’s policy style (Rothstein, 2012; Richardson, 2013; Howlett & Tosun, 2018; Zahariadis et al., 2022). By policy style, we mean the institutional context within which national governments deliberate over policy problems (Zahariadis et al., 2022). Furthermore, the policy style emerges from whether a government is reactive or anticipatory in its approach to policy making and the state of relations between the public and government (Richardson, 2013). In the context of crisis response, the policy style “casts a long shadow” over how policymakers respond to the crisis (Zahariadis et al., 2022; 2021), which is informed by the extent to which the public trusts the government to handle the crisis (Howlett & Tosun, 2018).

3As we have argued elsewhere (Taylor et al., 2022), the decentralized policy style of the United States, particularly its federal system of government and fragmented public trust in government and healthcare, contributed to the botched response – factors that transcend electoral politics. For the remainder of this essay, we describe the policy style of the United States and public trust in government. We analyze the US response through the lens of policy style to illuminate the important factors that contributed to the policy fiasco beyond electoral politics, and we conclude by suggesting a path forward to reconcile these views of the US pandemic response.

US Policy Style

4Broadly speaking, government in the United States can be characterized as reactive: the state does not readily seek out problems. This characteristic is partially attributed to the American electoral system, in which legislators are perpetually focused on re-election (Mayhew, 2004) and voters are said to be myopic (Healy & Malhotra, 2013), meaning that they punish or reward elected officials for responding to problems that have an immediate impact on their daily lives, instead of addressing emerging issues that may—or may not—affect constituents months or years in the future. Given these incentives, Professor Brown is right to consider the extent to which the political calculations of key actors shaped decisions. We would add, however, that these considerations cannot be divorced from the overall policy style of the United States, which denotes an institutional context that transcends a single election cycle.

5We pay particularly close attention to the difference in administrative policy capacity and degree of inclusiveness. Our analysis of the US response to the COVID-19 pandemic focuses primarily on the national government and tries to draw some generalizations about state activity. Despite its tendency toward reactive policymaking, the American policy system enjoys high administrative capacity relative to other countries. Unlike in other countries, much of that policy capacity resides in the legislature, which seeks to act as a counterweight to the executive branch. While Peters (2015) suggests that the U.S. Congress has willingly shed some of its own policy capacity by relying more heavily on lobbyists and technical experts as opposed to internal information gathering agencies, the legislature remains an important driver of policy change at the national level. This dynamic has, at least historically, been particularly pronounced in the areas of health care and public health, which tend to provide myriad opportunities for experts to exert influence on the composition and design of important policies (Jacobs & Skocpol, 2015).

6Expert influence over health care and public health communities has been shown to persist in some, but certainly not all, subnational settings. Meanwhile, the federal government has done little, if anything, to bolster the administrative capacity of laggard states and has made significant cuts to important state public health preparedness funding programs since roughly 2010, including the Hospital Preparedness Program (HPP) and the Public Health Emergency Preparedness (PHEP) program.

7The American system enjoys modest policy and political inclusion, particularly at the subnational level, where myriad policy venues provide avenues for citizens and organized interests to advocate for their preferred policy alternatives. Kingdon (2011) drew on Cohen, March, and Olsen’s (1972) “garbage can model of organizational choice” and its assumption of “fluid participation” in the policy process to describe a process in which participants come and go in the policy process, although the fluidity of that participation does vary by policy domain. Peters (2019) suggests that the courts are the primary participatory mechanism at the federal level, adding that partisan gridlock has effectively stunted the ability to usher major reforms through the U.S. Congress. Furthermore, Peters documents the rise of what he calls adversarial legalism, or the growing reliance on the courts to block substantive policy change, suggesting that the courts play a central role in shaping and resolving important policy issues, making it extraordinarily difficult to pass major reforms. This characterization is consistent with trends in federalism in the United States, where there is increasing party polarization within states, resulting in legislative gridlock, and increased adversarial litigation of policies within state and federal courts (Goelzhauser & Konisky, 2019).

8Political trust in government is generally low in the United States. Historically, Americans have held less negative views of their local and state governments compared to their attitudes toward the federal government (Peters, 2019). This trend began in the 1980s and has been attributed to public perceptions of the economy, scandals in government, and crime rates (Chanley, et al., 2000). Although trust in government may be low in the United States, it is different from active distrust of the U.S. government (Cook & Gronke, 2005). The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated Americans’ distrust of government. According to Pew, only 42% of Americans believe the government has done a good job handling public health threats. In fact, as of September 2020, only 20% of Americans indicated that they trust the federal government (Pew, 2020).

9Taken together, Americans have low levels of trust and confidence in government, but high levels of trust in the medical field. Given that low levels of political trust can diminish administrative capacity and make problems more intractable (Exadaktylos & Zahariadis, 2014; Rothstein, 2012), such public tendencies are problematic for the policy style of the United States and its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It implies that American distrust of government would diminish the state’s administrative capacity to be effective in the face of the pandemic.

US Policy Style and Pandemic Response

10There are four elements to the pandemic response that we argue are closely connected to the policy style of the United States. Here we highlight one of the elements: the coordination of the response within government. Elsewhere, we examine the communication of risk, the degree of policy stringency undertaken by national and subnational governments, and the degree of centralization in the government’s response to the pandemic (Taylor et al., 2022). Until January 20, 2021, the national government’s response to the pandemic was characterized by an initial lack of urgency at the national level that evolved into a flood of misinformation. For example, misinformation was advanced by then President Trump, who argued that the virus would disappear and was no more dangerous than the seasonal flu (Goldberg, 2020). Later, this left many state and local governments to fend for themselves to communicate public health information throughout the crisis. In the case of COVID-19 in the United States, it is important to make the distinction between the existing coordination structures that were in place and the failure to effectively use these structures. In the time leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, the capacity of the U.S. federal government to mount an effective, coordinated response to a widespread public health crisis caused by an infectious disease was significant. However, this capacity to provide a coordinated response was squandered.

11The capacity that existed went unused during the COVID-19 pandemic response, particularly during the early stages of the pandemic. While there was a de jure capacity for greater coordination, the de facto response was one that was decentralized and, most specifically, disorganized. This was not for want of being informed about the possibility of such a pandemic. The Obama administration briefed some incoming Trump officials and worked through a pandemic scenario (Toosi, Lippman, & Diamond, 2020), but, to the extent that if anything was learned by the participants in that briefing, its fundamentals were not applied to the emerging crisis. From the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, the federal government failed to provide a coherent strategy to respond to the pandemic, effectively ignoring existing planning and preparedness and politically undermining steps that states could take to blunt the effects of the virus as it spread (Mervosh et al., 2021 ). Moreover, the federal guidelines around testing in the early stages of the pandemic revealed a failure of coordination between the Centers for Disease Control testing guidelines, the approval of tests by the Food and Drug Administration, and inaction within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) (Shear et al., 2020).

12While the federal government was unable to use existing administrative capacity to coordinate a response to the pandemic, states were left to go it alone. The result was a haphazard response that was frustrating but—and this is crucial—not entirely unusual in the fragmented system of the U.S. federal government. Effectively, fragmented federalism means that states adopt a patchwork of policy standards and implementation across the country (Bowling & Pickerill, 2013). Inasmuch as the federal coordinating capacity is centralized, the nature of governance and politics in the United States is one of fragmentation and, particularly in recent years, political polarization (Goelzhauser & Konisky, 2020).

13In the COVID-19 response, the U.S. had the administrative capacity to provide a centralized, coordinated response, and yet, it failed to do so. There are many competing and intervening explanations why: a failure of leadership in the Trump Administration, a lack of governing experience, and denial and ignorance of facts and scientific evidence. It is notable that after September 11, there has been considerable disinvestment in public health preparedness (Nelson et al., 2007). However, the fact remains that despite budget cuts, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) had the capacity to identify and track the outbreak of COVID-19 in China and then report it to the Incident Management Structure, initiating a federal response on January 7, 2020 (Taylor, 2020). Moreover, the federal government has considerable fiscal power to compel states to adopt public health policies (DeLeo, 2010). In our assessment, the U.S. federal government had administrative capacity to respond, however hobbled, but lacked the legal and constitutional capacity to compel cohesive state action.

14However, through the lens of policy styles, public trust in government remains a promising explanation. Because of a lack of public trust, fostered by political polarization and a patchwork of responses of varying degrees of effectiveness, coordination was highly decentralized. Moreover, the efficacy of this decentralized response was undermined by political blame directed at state governors who were trying to address the pandemic through a variety of responses (Mervoskh et al., 2021). We would expect that public trust in government would be low when basic public health protective measures, such as promoting social distancing and mask wearing, and limitations on business operations are viewed through an ideological lens.

15Given the policy style of the U.S., where diffuse decision making is commonplace, and given that the national government—and the executive branch in particular—is expected to serve as an exemplar of good communication practices during crises, the uncoordinated communication and falsehoods from federal officials sowed confusion among state policymakers and the public. The lack of urgency communicated by the executive branch appears to have permeated the legislative branch as well, at least during the early stages of the pandemic. Aside from a handful of statements in favor or opposition to President Trump’s initial travel ban (Allasan, 2020), the legislative branch effectively failed to articulate how it planned on supporting pandemic preparedness efforts until at least late February or early March 2020.

Reconciling Policy Style and the Electoral Connection Argument

16In the case of the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States, policy capacity to respond to the problem was highly centralized but political trust was very low. There were established response plans and the federal government’s public health agencies had ample experience in responding to infectious disease outbreaks in the past. HHS had made adjustments to respond and lead in a pandemic scenario. Moreover, the federal government has centralized authority to marshal resources under the Defense Production Act (PL 81-774, 50 U.S.C. 4501 et seq.), emergency procurement procedures with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and to distribute resources from the U.S. federal supply stockpiles. However, almost none of these tools were used during the initial phases of the pandemic under the Trump Administration, save the efforts under Operation Warp Speed to support development of a vaccine. All of this took place even during an election year. In this respect, one would expect the Trump Administration to have capitalized on the existing capacity of the U.S. federal government to aid in the pandemic response because the response would be rewarded, not punished, by voters. However, this was not the case. While the pandemic may have been salient during the election, the noteworthy aspects of the pandemic that became relevant to electoral concerns were the politicization of mask wearing and other pandemic mitigation measures.

17However, given the low public trust in government and the misinformation noted above, the policy style of the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic involved a centrifugal response. In what could be characterized as a blame avoidance tactic, the Trump Administration through its own inaction delegated, in effect, the handling of the crisis to the states and governors, which were likely to avoid the political consequences of the botched U.S. response. It also allowed President Trump and his administration to assign blame to state governors for more stringent policy responses that were politically unpopular: specifically, bar and restaurant closures and stay-at-home orders. Compounding the challenge at the state level, these unpopular measures were much more within the states’ power under the American constitutional system than they were within the federal government’s remit. As a result of low levels of public trust in government, Americans were left to rely on their trust in doctors and hospitals to diagnose, treat, and care for the sick during the pandemic. Here again, President Trump made strategic blunders that likely undermined his short-term electoral concerns. For example, he would have been well-advised to take more credit than he did for the rapid and successful development of the vaccine.

Conclusion

18We appreciate Professor Brown’s careful and thought-provoking assessment of the electoral determinants of the botched U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We hope that our analysis of the interaction between policy style and public trust builds on his analysis by couching the crisis in a larger institutional and cultural context that helps explain the extent to which policymakers were either empowered or constrained in their attempts to effectively mitigate the crisis. Given the capacity and past experience of the United States, the policy style should have been one of centralization, state inclusion, and a high level of trust in the government’s ability to perform. However, this was not the case as the national capacity to centralize a response went unused, conflicting and misleading information was communicated to the states and the public, and President Trump’s management focused on avoiding blame. This set of factors undermined public trust in government that was already low. One path forward is to examine the connection between public trust, credit claiming, and blame attribution to further tease out the importance of electoral politics within the policy style concept.

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References

Electronic reference

Kristin Taylor, Rob DeLeo, Thomas Birkland and Deserai Anderson Crow, Policy Style and The US Policy Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Rebuttal to Lawrence D. Brown’s Fomenters of FiascoInternational Review of Public Policy [Online], 5:3 | 2023, Online since 01 December 2023, connection on 20 May 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/irpp/3639; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/irpp.3639

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About the authors

Kristin Taylor

Wayne State University, USA
fm2060@wayne.edu

By this author

Rob DeLeo

Bentley University, USA
rdeleo@bentley.edu

Thomas Birkland

North Carolina State, USA
tabirkla@ncsu.edu
https://orcid.org/0000-0003-3073-8471

Deserai Anderson Crow

University of Colorado Denver, USA
deserai.crow@ucdenver.edu
https://orcid.org/0000-0003-2078-3607

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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