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7 Steps to the Resurgent Federalism Biden Will Need

Without reinvigorating our tattered intergovernmental partnership, his administration will be doomed as it tries to tackle enormous, urgent and inescapable challenges.

Glass vials of COVID-19 vaccine
Distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine quickly and efficiently will require robust intergovernmental efforts. (Photo: Getty)
It's been a very long time — perhaps dating back to Roosevelt in 1933 — since a president has taken office with federalism in such tatters. Just consider what's happened: The federal government has dumped many of its public health responsibilities for COVID-19 onto the states; in some states governors have been at war with mayors; and President Trump has impugned vote counting by state and local officials. Surrounding it all, America's ugly shadow of local racism has reared up with an angry national voice.

That sets the table for two enormous, urgent and inescapable challenges President Biden will face: getting the pandemic-wracked economy back on track and immunizing the country's citizens. He can't accomplish the first without success on the second. And he can't do either without a truly fresh take on federalism. Without it, his administration could well be doomed before it even gets off the ground.

We've struggled for months to get a COVID-19 testing regime in place. To immunize the population, we need to ramp up an effort seven times larger and do it in half the time. To accomplish this — and the rest of what it seeks to accomplish — Biden's administration needs to pursue a seven-part intergovernmental plan:

First, reinvigorate the federal-state-local partnership by transforming the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. Biden has named Julie Rodriguez, a seasoned campaign hand, to head the office. To be blunt: The Biden administration will fail if it can't get vaccines from the lab into people's arms, if it can't make the process work smoothly, and if it fails to build trust at every step along the way. That has to be the singular focus for Rodriguez and, to accomplish it, she needs state and local governments as partners, not interest groups.

Second, sort out the tough question of who does what. There's an important paradox here: The vaccination campaign is a multi-headed effort that needs a singular voice so that the media and the public know who to listen to (and to hold accountable). Success depends on interlocking the roles of the key players: the federal government, in coordinating the production and distribution of the vaccine; state governments, in setting priorities for who gets vaccinated when and where; county officials, in resuscitating the nation's staggering public health system; municipal officials, in connecting their citizens to the vaccine; and private companies ranging from CVS to Walgreens to Walmart, among others, to administer the vaccine, to UPS and FedEx and the airlines to get the vaccine to their doors. We need to get much better, quickly, at weaving together these jumbled pieces of the system.

Third, create a useful language to link the players together. From the very beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, the American effort has been crippled by the difficulty of talking about the battle against the virus — and by the difficulty in keeping score of the progress. In most countries, the national government has been the go-to source for what's happening. In the United States, the data breakdown was so bad that reporters have turned to websites created by non-governmental organizations like Johns Hopkins University and the University of Washington. We don't need the Biden administration to push these sterling efforts out of the way, but we do need the administration to nudge the states into talking the same language so we can measure our progress in vaccinating citizens and breaking the back of the virus. It will do us no good if our governments are towers of Babel, with everyone speaking different languages, instead of towers of coordinated strength.

Fourth, establish a strong federal voice to highlight the issues we want to make sure we don't miss. COVID-19 has especially ravaged communities of color, but if it weren't for efforts like the Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center's, the issue might well have slipped public notice. In the Hopkins scorecard, only eight states report testing data by race. We won't be able to lead on issues we don't understand and can't measure, and cracking this problem has to be a top White House priority.

Fifth, lead nationally on issues that happen locally. Lurking behind all of these issues are the deep racial divisions that spilled out across American politics during 2020. There's a paradox here, too, with issues of the highest national importance that hinge on the behavior of the most local of government officials. The feds in general — and Biden in particular — will be called on to speak forcefully on issues where progress will depend on local leadership. The feds can't fix the problem of rogue cops, but they can shine a bright spotlight on the problems that need to be fixed and develop strategies with promise to fix them.

Sixth, build national policy that depends on state and local partners. The Biden team won't be able to walk inches into any policy issue it cares about, from fixing the Affordable Care Act to moving forward on its climate agenda to dealing with immigration's complex puzzles, without suiting up state and local officials onto the same team. What it needs to do for COVID-19 is the same playbook it will need on everything else it cares about.

Seventh, engage the wider world of thought leadership on these issues. As I've noted in this space, we stage mega-policy battles but rarely grapple with the central reality of American domestic public policy: that, if new policies are to become realities, the road from big ideas in Washington runs through state and local governments. This is a road that deserves far more of our attention.

We'll know by March if the Biden administration will be off to the fast start it hopes for. Our biggest clue will be how well it tackles these seven crucial steps to build a federalism that's truly resurgent.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

Donald F. Kettl is a professor emeritus and the former dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @DonKettl.
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