IDEAS: Will voters hold governors accountable for the economy, COVID response?

Note from Community Impact Editor Amelia Robinson: This guest opinion column from John Tarwater, an associate professor of finance at Cedarville University, appeared on the Ideas and Voices page Sunday, Oct. 25. Other columns that appeared on the page are linked below.

As polls reflect, voters disapprove of President Trump’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the exception of saying he limited travel from China in January, he has struggled to articulate clearly what his administration has done. Democrats attack him on the issue, while simultaneously citing the number of people in the United States who have died from the virus.

Early attempts to limit the spread of the virus began in March 2020 when six counties in northern California began enacting stay-at-home orders for all nonessential businesses. Other governors followed suit, effectively shutting down our nation’s economy.

By mid-April, many were feeling the effects of a closed economy. In response to the president’s claim that he had ultimate authority to reopen the economy, legal scholars and nearly every Democratic governor quickly accused him of using dictatorial language. Both, the president’s statements and the Democratic responses seemed out of character for their parties' understanding of the size and role of the government.

Ultimately, the president’s response to the pandemic echoed the Republicans' traditional stance on federalism and private enterprise. His administration resisted national mandates for masks, social distancing and mandatory lockdowns, while simultaneously empowering local governments to deal with the virus.

The administration’s approach assumed that what is needed in New York, Los Angeles and Tampa Bay, Florida, may differ drastically from what is needed in Falls City, Nebraska, and Lincoln, North Dakota. Thus, most evaluations of the administration’s responses to COVID should more accurately be viewed as appraisals of local and state officials whose stay-home policies were enacted.

As of Friday, the states with the five highest death rates in the country were New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Louisiana and Rhode Island, according to the CDC. Each of those has a Democratic governor who has resisted the Trump administration’s attempts to reopen the economy.

New York City has the highest death rate in the nation per 100,000 people.

In addition to death rates, unemployment numbers have greatly affected the lives of U.S. citizens. When the Bureau of Labor Statistics released unemployment statistics in September, the rate was 8.4%, which was 4.7 points higher than last year. However, unemployment rates, like the death rates from COVID, are largely driven by decisions that are made at the state level rather than the federal.

Only 10 states, for example, had unemployment rates higher than the national average, all of which have Democratic governors. The five highest of those were Nevada (13.2%), Rhode Island (12.8%), Hawaii (12.5%) and New York (12.5%).

The lowest unemployment rates for the nation were in Nebraska (4.0%), Utah (4.1%), and Idaho (4.2%), each of which has a Republican governor.

The economic effect of COVID responses goes beyond unemployment numbers. With the rise in unemployment, fewer people have income to spend on consumer goods. Hence, there is a decline in manufacturing and GDP. Fewer people have work-related insurance, and thus are not receiving medical care. As a result, other health related problems, including death, continue to increase.

It will be interesting to see if the administration will ever articulate well its policies for empowering local and state governments to address the pandemic. Even if it does, it remains uncertain whether voters will hold their governors accountable for the decisions that they made regarding the economy and COVID. In light of the debate that took place in mid-April regarding presidential powers, current complaints against the administration’s responses to the pandemic by Democratic governors resemble the assertion “you can neither tell me what to do nor blame me for what I do.”

John Tarwater is an associate professor of finance at Cedarville University, where he teaches courses in finance and economics. He is the author of various articles in professional journals and edited volumes in fields of both finance and ethics. Guest columns are submitted or requested fact-based opinion pieces typically of 300 to 450 words. Have an idea? Contact Amelia Robinson at

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