In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson stated: "When the burdens of the presidency seem unusually heavy, I always remind myself it could be worse. I could be a mayor". American mayors used to quote this jokingly. Today, as is the case in France, they face the daunting responsibility of managing the local effects of one of the worst global health and economic crisis.
When early coronavirus hotspots were detected on the west coast of the United States, mayors were the first to react. The lack of a robust federal response created a climate of uncertainty when critical decisions had to be made: declaring a state of emergency, limiting gatherings, closing schools, and mobilizing health infrastructures. "For cities, it's like running a marathon at the speed of a sprint," said to me a former senior U.S. official involved in managing Hurricane Katrina which devastated New Orleans in 2005.
Jenny Durkan, Democratic mayor of Seattle - the first heavily affected city in the country - embodied this decisive leadership. While President Donald Trump downplayed the scale of the crisis mid-March, Mayor Durkan and many other mayors banded together to share information and their experience in virtual city networks such as the Coronavirus Local Response Initiative, funded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the National League of Cities, a leading association of municipalities. The crisis revealed that the first allies of mayors were above all the mayors from other cities in the U.S. and abroad.
Yet, the mayoral response to the Covid-19 crisis remains limited to local jurisdictions. The U.S. federalist system prompts a locally-executed strategy, run by governors, with the support of the federal government. This sharing of powers is rooted in both the Constitution and the collective american consciousness, which prefers political decision-making close to the citizens and is wary of the Washington D.C. bureaucracy, perceived as disconnected and inefficient. Maybe less inspired by the spirit of the founding fathers than by political calculation, Donald Trump largely distanced himself from the crisis while also blaming its magnitude on its political opponents.
While the response to Covid-19 required clear coordination at the federal level, this posture contributed to disarray and diverging crisis management measures across the country. It was not up to the federal government to enact a nationwide lockdown, but to each state individually. However, the absence of federal guidelines and Donald Trump's reluctance to quickly recognize the national dimension of the crisis led to uncoordinated stay-at-home orders, potentially accelerating the spread from state-to-state. California was the first to impose a state-wide lockdown on all residents on March 14, a measure soon replicated by a large number of states at the end of March, but by April 7, eight states had still not issued stay-at-home orders.