May 30, 2020, in Washington, D.C. Photo credit: bgrocker /

The United States is in the midst of three national crises: a public health crisis, an economic crisis, and a civil rights crisis provoked by racist police brutality and structural racism.

Each demands national responses and leadership.

Designed to prevent centralized tyranny, the American federal system has always had trouble marshaling a national response to such crises. The nation’s two deepest crises — southern secession to preserve slavery, and the Great Depression — were nevertheless addressed with admirable effectiveness by the nation’s two greatest presidents, Republican President Abraham Lincoln, and Democrat President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Both leaders took bold, unprecedented actions to save the country. Neither was perfect. But neither shirked the magnitude of the task before them.

In response to the triple crises of 2020, America’s current combination of erratic, narcissistic presidential leadership on top of its constitutional structure of federalism has produced an incoherent and in some cases contradictory series of local, state, and federal policies.

As protests have intensified, President Trump has attacked governors and mayors and staged a notorious photo-op pandering to his religious base rather than propose constructive initiatives. It is easy to fault him. The vital question is how, especially in an election year, could national leaders do better?

Even though he lacks the stature of Lincoln or FDR, Australia’s conservative prime minister Scott Morrison has provided a good example of effective leadership in these troubled times.

In order to surmount the obstacles presented by partisanship and federalism, Morrison formed a new National Cabinet that included the heads of the country’s six states, regardless of party, along with the heads of pertinent national ministries. Together, the premiers and civil servants were able to develop coordinated strategies for confronting the Covid-19 threat.

Surprisingly, Morrison gave great weight to the views of medical experts and to labor groups, as well as to corporate representatives. As a result, Australia has coped with the Covid-19 crisis far better than the United States and defused sniping between national and state authorities or between parties. It has gone so well that Australia is likely to continue the National Cabinet after the crisis ends.

If America had a leader able to imagine such an innovation, the formation of an Australian-style National Council might have been able to ratify and give direction to the bi-partisan criticisms of the Minneapolis police officers that quickly emerged. It could have organized a national inquiry into the roots of violence in the early days of the protest while coordinating local, state, and national efforts to quell the violence. Instead, too many of America’s local officials, following Trump’s lead, have spent too much time finger-pointing.

The 2020 election campaign threatens to be similarly petty, a competition devoid of competing proposals for national action. To his credit, Joe Biden began to offer some policy ideas in his Philadelphia speech on the protests, calling for a national initiative to reform policing, and promising an agenda focused on reducing economic and racial injustice. But much more is needed.

In addition to creating some form of federal/state National Council, America’s national leaders might consider:

  • Massive national housing initiatives to combat the economically and segregated neighborhoods that generate hardships leading to crimes in poorer areas, and paranoia leading to crimes in richer ones. Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond explained the necessity for federal housing policy in his searing book Evicted. As a start, single-household zoning law strictures should be challenged.
  • Election law reforms must ensure that all state and local electoral systems give equal voice to all citizens, rather than working to exclude some voters with demanding ID tests.
  • A multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure initiative to build better transportation and communication systems, clean energy production, schools, and health care facilities can provide jobs now and provide a foundation for long-term economic growth, especially in needy communities, which in America today are disproportionately communities of color. Since the late 1990s, America’s publicly-funded schools have become more, not less, segregated, as the achievements of the post-Brown decades evaporate. The “big, bold” infrastructure initiative Trump says he wants but never pursues must include components targeted to eliminate America’s gaping racial disparities.
  • A Department of Justice-directed reform of police departments across the country to make forces more diverse. The successful post-1970s measures to desegregate police forces and to develop a less proportionately white police force in minority districts have lost traction, with the Trump Justice Department ending efforts to achieve consent decrees for progress. In recent years, the proportion of white police officers enforcing the law in majority non-white counties has grown. For example, a white population of 28 percent in San Bernandino, CA, and 12 percent in Prince Edward’s County, MD, are policed by forces that are 67 percent and 38 percent white respectively. Milwaukee County, WI, is 51 percent white but has a police force which is 83 percent white. Changing this would help African American police chiefs with their reforms.

Republicans and Democrats can constructively disagree on the means toward these ends, including whether to incentivize market solutions or directly provide public services. But very soon, both Trump and Biden should announce major, multi-point programs for ensuring that the conditions that have made possible the current triple-crisis will not endure.

The parties should adopt or improve on those programs at their nominating conventions. America’s voters can then choose which direction forward they believe to be best — instead of having to decide, as they must right now, simply who to hate the most.

America is not repeating history. It is living the unresolved history of a failure to use national power to tackle the sources of structural inequality and to quell racism. Strong national leadership is required — but it must be leadership focused on confronting the nation’s problems, not posturing to score points over political opponents.

Rogers M. Smith, Christopher Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania and Desmond King, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of American Government at the University of Oxford, are co-authors of Still a House Divided: Race and Politics in Obama’s America (2011) and “White Protectionism in America,” (Perspectives on Politics, vol 18, 2020).

Desmond King is the Mellon Professor of American Government at the University of Oxford.