The phone calls come from inside the new administration, but the president is not on the line. In fact, Joe Biden has not dialed in to any of the weekly COVID-19 coordinating calls with the nation’s governors since he came into office, a sharp contrast with his predecessor and a break from last year’s pandemic ritual.
Every Tuesday, usually at 11 a.m. EST, all 50 governors dial in to the same conference call to coordinate federal and state responses to the coronavirus crisis. And until this past January, they heard each time from the vice president. Mike Pence, as head of the White House COVID task force, led those weekly discussions. Donald Trump dropped by from time to time. The calls continue under the current administration but without Biden. “It's been a real frustration, I think it's safe to say, for all 50 governors,” New Hampshire’s Chris Sununu told RealClearPolitics.
Of course, he appreciates hearing from Jeffrey Zients (pictured), the new White House COVID response coordinator, and from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House chief medical adviser. But Sununu told RCP, “It would go a long way if the president would just get on the phone, or the vice president would get on the phone and take questions. Allow us to ask the folks in charge questions.”
The Trump White House hosted a total of 40 COVID conference calls. Pence led 39 of them, according to that administration’s final COVID report first obtained by RCP. Trump participated in eight. Things are different now, said Pete Ricketts. “President Biden hasn’t been on any of them,” the Nebraska governor told RCP, “and Vice President Harris has only been on one, but that was for about five minutes and she didn’t take any questions.”
Andrew Cuomo now leads the calls as chairman of the National Governors Association. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki explained that the New York governor was put in charge instead of the vice president because a change was needed. One of the reasons, Psaki told reporters in March, “is that there were operational aspects of the way the last administration approached COVID and approached the distribution of vaccines or approached planning and engagement with governors that wasn’t working.”
The new approach was also required, a White House official told RCP, because the pandemic response has changed dramatically from the early days when little was known about the virus to now, when half of U.S. adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
And the COVID calls changed, the official added, only after the White House sought input from the states: “We took the feedback from governors in the prior administration that they wanted to have strong, regular, and coordinated response efforts with the federal government, and we’ve been focused on it.”
The administration works daily with states, the official continued, because its “whole-of-government pandemic response is rooted in effective and consistent communication. … While these calls [with governors] play one role in our relationships, it is not the sole mechanism.”
Another difference between the administrations: the role of the vice presidents. Pence was the leader of the COVID response team. Harris’ responsibilities are elsewhere, including, as Biden has explained, addressing “the root causes” of the southern border migrant crisis. As a result, the medical experts are the ones talking to the governors on the weekly call, not the politicians.
Though Ricketts appreciates “the hard work that all the other officials who are on the phone are doing,” it’s not the same, he explained, as having “high-level access to the decision-makers who can move the bureaucracy.”
“It really is not the type of bipartisan partnership that the president promised when he came into office in his inaugural address. It really is much more of a top-down, we-are-going-to-do-what-we-are-going-to-do thought process.”
The governors who spoke to RCP, on and off the record, expressed frustration with a number of issues, from the lack of guidance on how to spend the money allocated in the American Rescue Plan to the vaccine distribution schedule. Some governors felt particularly blindsided by news that the Food and Drug Administration was putting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on hold after a small number of recipients experienced blood clots.
“I was listening to the radio one morning when I hear about the pause, and I'm like ‘What's this?’” Ricketts said. He had just held a press conference to tout the J&J vaccine, encouraging Nebraskans to get the shot. “For us to be left in the dark about this,” he said, “is very frustrating.”
The pause was abrupt and left states scrambling to find alternatives even though fewer than one in a million recipients of the J&J shot reported experiencing the complication.
“They didn’t even pick up the phone, and say, ‘Hey, by the way, you might see this in the news. We'll explain it on the call,’” Sununu said. “Nothing.”
White House officials insist that they heard about the pause through media reports, just like the rest of the country. “We were notified last night that there would be an announcement this morning,” Zients told reporters after the news broke. The FDA made the call, he added, and “there was no heads-up here.”
Still, some governors have concerns. “Communication is not the administration’s strong point, but it's still important. Transparency is the foundation of public trust, especially during a crisis,” Sununu said.
“One of the ways they can do better is by … treating us like valued partners,” Ricketts added in a separate interview.
Biden has urged Americans to remain cautious even as the rising number of vaccinations signals the beginning of the end of the pandemic. During remarks to herald having administered 200 million vaccine doses, the president warned that “if we let up now and stop being vigilant, this virus will erase the progress we’ve already achieved, the sacrifices we’ve made, the lives that have been put on hold, the loved ones who’ve been taken from us, the time we’re never going to get back.”
Would it help to get a president back on the phone then? “Not really,” answered one governor who spoke to RCP on condition of anonymity. “We know everything there is to know about this thing now. We know how to deal with it.”