In coronavirus crisis, Cuomo and Trump show contrast in leadership

Analysis: Two of the nation's most powerful executives are exhibiting nearly opposite leadership styles, policy instincts and public relations strategies.

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By Jonathan Allen

One day, President Donald Trump told Americans that he bore no share of the blame for testing missteps that have increased the devastation wrought by coronavirus.

"I don't take responsibility at all," he said.

A few days later, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo welcomed accountability for the extraordinary measures his state has put in place to stop the spread of the virus, including the closure of "nonessential" businesses beginning at 8 p.m. Sunday.

"If someone wants to blame someone, blame me," Cuomo said this week. "There is no one else responsible for this decision.”

Even as they approach each other relatively cautiously, two of the nation's most powerful executives are exhibiting nearly opposite leadership styles, policy instincts and public relations strategies. That's happening against the backdrop of an ideological battle in Washington, in New York and around the country that pits those who care primarily about stopping the spread of the virus against those who say the cures will cause an economic calamity or a federal intervention in the private sector that dwarfs the damage of the disease.

"The daily press briefings out of Washington and Albany over the last week have provided a split screen in leadership. Whereas Governor Cuomo has been ruthlessly direct, faithful to the facts, and in command at all times, the president has lashed out at the media, sowed confusion,and shirked responsibility at every turn," said Lis Smith, a Democratic strategist who advised Cuomo's 2018 campaign.

"There's a lot of fear and uncertainty out there. People want a leader, they want the facts, and they want to know that even though things won't be easy, they will be OK," she added. "Governor Cuomo is offering a sense of calm and steadiness — the president is not."

Even past critics are giving good reviews. "After some early delays, Cuomo has shown that he gets the urgency now," said Rebecca Kirszner Katz, a Democratic strategist who served as the chief strategist for Cuomo's primary opponent, Cynthia Nixon, in 2018. "He is leading in a way many of those in power are not."

On Sunday morning, Cuomo praised Trump for leaving it to governors to determine quarantines on a state-by-state basis but criticized the president's reluctance to deploy his immense powers under the federal Defense Production Act. That law gives the president authorities to require private companies to manufacture medical supplies, to take control of how those materials are allocated to the states and to essentially prevent price-gouging amid the competition among the states and the federal government for scarce resources.

"The federal government should nationalize medical supply acquisition — the states simply cannot manage it, this state cannot manage it," Cuomo said at a news conference in Albany. "If I had the power, I would do it in New York state."

He said that his state is competing with others for masks, medical gowns and ventilators.

"In some ways, we’re savaging other states," he said. "Price-gouging is a tremendous problem, and it’s only getting worse."

While Trump has called on Americans to self-quarantine for a period of 15 days, in accordance with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he has steadfastly resisted calls from Democrats, and some Republicans, to use his Defense Production Act powers.

Cuomo's remarks, delivered largely without direct reference to Trump, amounted to his sharpest on-camera critique of the president yet. As he has noted repeatedly, he needs the federal government's assistance, which in and of itself is reason enough not to alienate the president.

They have been more aggressive toward each other on Twitter, where they don't have to put their faces to their words on live video, than they have in widely watched news conferences. But Cuomo and Trump are also obviously acutely aware of the political risk to each of getting in an acrimonious public spat with the other.

Cuomo was careful also to praise the federal government for "acting quickly" to get money into the pockets of citizens as the White House and Congress work to put the finishing touches on an aid package that will deliver more than $1 trillion in cash and, with loan power included, could approach $2 trillion in relief for businesses and individuals.

The ideological lines on Capitol Hill have been scrambled a bit, too, by the crisis, as lawmakers try to. figure out how to pump such a vast sum of money into the economy without running afoul of constituents who may later blame them for the directions in which it is aimed.

While Cuomo and other Democrats are pushing Trump to deploy more of his powers, the president is getting pressure from conservative intellectuals who fear intrusions of government into the machinations of the private sector, voices for his populist base who see job losses as more of a threat than the public health crisis and a combination of the two.

In an editorial this week, The Wall Street Journal — the newspaper that most influences and most reflects the philosophical underpinnings of many of the president's top domestic policy advisers — wrote that "no society can safeguard public health for long at the cost of its economic health."

A former Republican congressional staffer who now lives in upstate New York said "there is an undercurrent of anger I don't think D.C. is seeing or hearing or reporting about" because many people in rural locations don't think the number and severity of confirmed cases in their areas justify the lockdowns recommended by health experts.

"People are getting laid off and losing business, and there are about to be a lot of angry, angry people," the former aide said.

Cuomo said he's less concerned about the ideology of centralization or decentralization of power. He urged Vice President Mike Pence to let him handle testing, but said he needs Washington to allocate medical supplies.

"Frankly, it's the president's style to say 'cut to the chase, this needs to be done, I'm mandating it,'" he said. "And that needs to be done here."

The White House was scheduled to hold a press briefing later Sunday afternoon. With Cuomo getting more aggressive Sunday morning, Trump had just a few hours to decide whether to accede to the demands — or push back.