Today we release the results of a 50 state survey of public opinion regarding COVID-19. In the report are clues to the ingredients of successful (or failed) leadership in an age of pandemic.
The first clue is that, in this supposed post fact age, citizens look first to science and expertise. The most trusted government entity we asked about are the Centers for Disease Control, with 88% of respondents indicating that they trust the CDC “some” or “a lot”; 93% trust scientists and researchers; and a remarkable 96% trust hospitals and doctors. This is a bipartisan consensus; with very modest differences between Democrats and Republicans (e.g., 54% of Republicans versus 66% of Democrats trust scientists and researchers a lot). The contrast with national political institutions is substantial. Only 51% report trusting President Trump-- with an enormous partisan gap-- and a meager, if bipartisan 47%, indicating trust in Congress.
The second clue is that there is a strong consensus that it is not yet time to “reopen the economy.” In this age of polarization, large bipartisan majorities in every state oppose re-opening, and nationally only 7% of respondents support immediate re-opening of the economy; with only small partisan differences (11% of Republicans versus 4% of Democrats support an immediate re-opening). Large majorities support the painful steps that state governments have taken to dampen the spread of the coronavirus. This reflects, we suspect, the fact that people have been incredibly attentive to this issue, and in particular, to what the experts are saying, which is that reopening risks a resurgence of the virus and hundreds of thousands of deaths. And yet, the trust and attention that experts seem to be getting does not directly translate to awareness of relevant guidelines and medical facts. According to our survey, close to a fifth of Americans think that antibiotics can cure coronavirus; that only people over 60 are getting sick; or that the disease was engineered as a bioweapon in a Chinese lab.
How should a leader in this moment confront this combination of science and public opinion? The answer cannot be to simply to accede to these forces. Science may provide a rigorous framework in which to weigh the facts; but it can offer at most a partial roadmap for how to proceed. The complement to scientific inquiry is one of human values-- what are our priorities as a society? This requires an interrogation-- but not intimidation-- of the science, to envision alternative futures, and (to the extent possible) recognition of the intrinsic uncertainties surrounding those possibilities..
And the public does not have access to the depth of information and expertise available to political leaders. One hopes that a leader responds to what the public wants for the future; not what it fears in the moment. The role of leadership is neither to follow nor ignore the public, but to to engage in a dialogue about the future. The President, in particular, has a remarkable bully pulpit that Teddy Roosevelt could only have dreamt of. The third clue in our data is that a remarkable forty percent of our respondents indicated that they had gotten information from the White House briefings in the preceding 24 hours-- more than Fox, CNN, or MSNBC (although somewhat less than from local or network news). These briefings present a daily opportunity to have a conversation with the citizens of this country, to provide high quality information about what is known, and to discuss possible paths forward in this murky moment.
This is not an opportunity that President Trump has seized. Rather than using the daily briefings as a potentially powerful tool to support our democracy, the president has presented a steady flow of misinformation and diatribes against the media and political opponents. The final clue in our data is that approval of the President’s response to the pandemic in our survey is below that of every governor. This is not simply a function of partisan citizens approving of their same partisan governors-- two of the highest rated governors are Republicans leading the deep blue states of Massachusetts and Maryland. It reflects, instead, an extraordinary lost opportunity to lead by engaging the experts and the public to envision a future where we can leave our homes without fear.