Yuval Levin is director of social, cultural and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
In recent days, President Trump has set off a peculiar debate about American federalism. It revolves around the question of just who has the authority to end the lockdowns in force in most of the country to fight the novel coronavirus. And it has revealed some serious confusion about both federalism and the public health challenge we face.
In a Twitter post on April 13, Trump insisted that the power to end social distancing requirements lies with him: “It is the decision of the President, and for many good reasons.” In that afternoon’s White House news briefing, he pressed the point: “The president of the United States calls the shots,” he said, and governors “can’t do anything without the approval of the president.”
Governors quickly balked. New York’s Andrew M. Cuomo (D) complained that Trump seemed to think he was America’s “king.” Pennsylvania’s Tom Wolf (D) was more restrained but not less clear. “Seeing as how we had the responsibility to close the state down, I think we probably have the primary responsibility for opening it up,” Wolf said.
Strictly speaking, Wolf was right. Although the president could use the leverage of federal aid to pressure governors, the states are ultimately sovereign over public health, and only they can exercise the kind of police powers involved in enforcing closures and other restrictions. The Supreme Court has repeatedly made clear that the federal government cannot commandeer state officials to enforce its edicts. ¶
But the whole dispute betrays a serious misunderstanding of the situation the country is in. The fact is that neither the president nor the governors could reopen the economy with the stroke of a pen. Nothing they could do would, by itself, persuade people to return to work, send their kids to school or make travel plans. Americans are worried about getting sick. They began canceling plans well before most states took major actions, and the confidence to get back to normal would require much more than the word of any politician.