Early on in the U.S. response to the coronavirus, President Trump announced that he was putting Vice President Mike Pence in the driver’s seat. It’s a complex job that requires coordinating actions by federal and state government agencies and hospitals and other medical providers. 

It also means a delicate balancing act between government bureaucrats and public health professionals and President Trump, who tends to follow his instincts and lean on business associates and media figures in times of crisis.

President Trump’s supporters also harbor skepticism about the public’s response to COVID-19 and worry that the actions being taken to limit in-person interactions could do irreparable harm to the U.S. economy. How Pence navigates these tightropes could make or break his future in the Republican Party.

As Governor of Indiana, Pence oversaw the state’s response to another coronavirus, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). He also understands firsthand what states are going through as they respond to the crisis. 

Pence also understands President Trump and his desire to frame the situation in terms of how it impacts the economy and his political allies and adversaries. If he goes too far in crossing the president and his supporters, he could lose their support and dampen his own chances of running for the office down the road.

As Politico noted, Pence is sometimes put in the position of having to restate President Trump’s claims or smooth the waters of public feuds with governors and other officials.

On the other hand, if Pence does not pay enough attention to guidance from the health and medical experts in the federal government, he could put the country at risk as the number of new COVID-19 cases and deaths continues to rise.

Either way, it will likely be seen as the most consequential moment of Pence’s vice presidency and his most significant White House assignment to date. Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley told Time magazine that, prior to COVID-19, Pence was seen as a minor figure at best, comparing him to Dan Quayle, who was vice president under George H. W. Bush.

“It is a high-risk game for Pence because he’s operating on a superhighway with angry citizens and he very easily could become debris,” Brinkley said. “In an election year, with a particularly unforgiving boss, that’s a dangerous spot to be in. But not nearly as dangerous a spot as that of the thousands of Americans who may live or die on the competence of Pence’s performance.”

Despite the challenging circumstances, people from across the political spectrum are working with Pence and applauding his performance thus far.

“I think quite honestly one of the smartest moves, one of the best things the President did was put Mike Pence in charge of this operation,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan told CNN. “The Vice President speaks with more clarity and more directness. You can tell he’s leading the team.”

While Pence has been seen as handling the crisis well thus far, he’s far from out of the woods. The U.S. now has more confirmed coronavirus cases than any other country in the world, and the economy has taken its biggest hit since the Great Depression, with millions of new unemployment claims filed during the month of March.  

As the next several months unfold, it will become clear whether Pence can stay the course and continue to earn praise from health officials, President Trump, and the American people.


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Image Credit: Photo by The White House on Flickr