Trump’s new 2020 challenger: The coronavirus

Trump's new 2020 challenger: The coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic has upended the 2020 presidential campaign. Rallies have been canceled, primaries are being delayed, and even where voting is taking place on schedule, canvassing and other normal politicking is on hold as voters increasingly shelter in place. Slowing the spread of the virus has taken precedence over getting the message out, forcing the candidates off the trail.

President Trump, however, is just as visible as ever. While former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders have been relegated to the sidelines, Trump has been a fixture of the White House’s daily press briefings on the coronavirus. While the setting and subject matter are vastly different than his freewheeling “Make America Great Again” rallies, Trump still manages to get in his trademark flourishes. There are the jokes (Trump pretended to flee when coronavirus point woman Deborah Birx acknowledged feeling ill over the weekend), the shots at political rivals in the Democratic Party (“I was called ‘xenophobic’ by Sleepy Joe Biden”) and his own (“Romney is in isolation? Gee, that’s too bad”), and, of course, sparring with the media (“I say that you’re a terrible reporter”).

And according to the polling data, the new dynamic is not only hamstringing Trump's rivals but boosting the president's own standing behind the podium. After initially giving Trump relatively low marks, Morning Consult recorded a nearly 10-point jump in approval of his handling of the coronavirus in a week’s time. This was powered by independents, whose approval increased from 43% to 51%, and even Democrats, whose support climbed from 18% to 26%. In total, the public backed Trump on his management of the pandemic by 53% to 39%. An ABC News/Ipsos poll told a similar story, showing a 12-point spike in Trump’s coronavirus approval, with 55% approving and 39% disapproving. A CBS/YouGov survey had 53% supporting Trump’s coping with the coronavirus to 47%. Gallup, meanwhile, had 60% saying Trump was doing a good job with the public health menace while 38% disapproved. His overall job approval rating tied a personal best in the poll, at 49%.

It’s all a possible rallying-around-the-flag effect, even some Republican operatives admitted to the Washington Examiner, and a small one compared to George W. Bush’s approval ratings after the 9/11 terrorist attacks or his father’s after the Persian Gulf War. It could all evaporate as we see rising unemployment or coronavirus death tolls combined with receding economic growth. On March 26, the Labor Department announced that more than 3 million people filed for unemployment benefits, by far the largest such filing in one week. Yet while many Democrats thought the relevant comparison would be Bush 43 after Hurricane Katrina, Trump has continued to behave like Trump during the crisis and has still seen his numbers climb, at least for now.

It hasn’t been all partisanship from Trump. He defended extra money for the Kennedy Center in the emergency relief spending package, saying the theater “suffered greatly” and that some compromise was necessary. “The Democrats have treated us fairly,” he told reporters. “I really believe that we've had a very good back-and-forth, and I say that with respect to Chuck Schumer.” Trump has had an off-and-on feud with the Democratic governor of his native state, New York’s Andrew Cuomo. But Trump said of Cuomo in mid-March, “The governor is doing a very good job.” Cuomo reciprocated the goodwill: “His team is on it. They’ve been responsive. I want to say thank you.” (Though Cuomo has since called the federal relief spending a “drop in the bucket.”)

And for all of the focus on Trump’s desire to see social distancing relaxed by Easter, he has stopped short of saying that was a hard-and-fast deadline. “I'm also hopeful to have Americans working again by that Easter — that beautiful Easter day,” Trump told reporters. “But rest assured, every decision we make is grounded solely on the health, safety, and well-being of our citizens. This is a medical crisis; this isn't a financial crisis.” He later added, “Above all, we know that the best thing for our economy and the world right now is a very, very powerful victory over the virus.”

“President Trump recognizes that Americans are scared and worried about the future. The public wants a leader who will comfort and inform them on a daily basis,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “Further, the media disinformation campaign against him and his administration’s effort to combat the coronavirus is beyond outrageous — doom and gloom 24/7, drinking fish-tank cleaner, etc.”

“He has a better sense of the trials and the tribulations of average Americans than the intelligentsia, not because he didn't have means but because he's worked with people in the building trade,” said former Trump adviser Sam Nunberg. “He didn't grow up on Fifth Avenue, he grew up in Queens.”

Trump has also benefited from the medical expertise of those he has tasked with tackling the coronavirus and speaking at the press briefings. “He should lean into letting Mike Pence and Anthony Fauci really run the show here,” said Liz Mair, a communications specialist who has advised Scott Walker and Rick Perry. “To an extent, that is ceding the bully pulpit.” But Fauci and Deborah Birx are respected medical professionals, and Pence “was governor of a state that is home to Eli Lilly” and “has some familiarity with medical terminology.”

“Politically, Trump knows that he is no longer running against Biden in 2020,” O’Connell said. “He is running against the pandemic. Trump’s reelection hopes hinge on his ability to instill confidence among America’s citizenry, as well as his ability to mobilize the federal government to weather the storm.” At the moment, the president is getting the benefit of the doubt. The enactment of a relief package also goes a long way. But it is a volatile situation, and public opinion is subject to drastic change.

Biden has struggled to find his footing in this environment. He holds no office and is stuck doing television interviews from his basement, where he is also recording his own video briefings of questionable production quality. Sanders, his last surviving Democratic primary opponent, has the opposite problem: He is juggling an increasingly tenuous presidential campaign with Senate duties as Congress tries to act on the coronavirus and forestall further economic disruption. The former vice president in particular has vacillated between criticizing Trump (“He should stop talking and start listening to the medical experts,” Biden told CNN) and trying to refrain from seeming overly critical (“If you notice on what I've been doing, I've not been criticizing the president, but I've been pointing out where there's disagreement as to how to proceed,” he said on ABC’s The View).

That’s not to say that Trump doesn’t have problems beyond the trajectory of the virus, which is largely outside of his control. He continues to be on the receiving end of intense criticism for his early remarks about the pandemic, which he seemed to downplay, and whether he adequately prepared either the government or the country for what was to come. His reference to Democratic criticism of the federal response to the coronavirus as a “hoax” was widely, if unfairly, interpreted as a denial of the illness’s severity itself. Trump’s messaging on whether his top priority is following medical officials' lead or reopening an economy hobbled by quarantines is inconsistent. He only recently abandoned a spat with the press over his use of the phrase “China virus.”

The media have been sharply critical of Trump’s briefings, fearing that broadcasting them in full will give him the same earned media advantage he enjoyed with his television news coverage four years ago. “The media must stop live-broadcasting Trump’s dangerous, destructive coronavirus briefings,” blared the headline of a Margaret Sullivan column in the Washington Post. A Seattle-area National Public Radio affiliate has already followed through on this advice. “It's become clear to me and many others that the daily briefings on the virus are morphing into substitutes for the rallies Trump cannot hold under social distancing rules,” tweeted New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen. “Cable news is giving Trump free airtime,” tweeted Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman. “Repeat of 2016 all over again.” Polling shows public distrust of the media’s handling of the pandemic.

Some do think the president’s approach could be refined. “Trump needs to watch the superlatives,” said Mair. “He's got to be a lot more scripted and careful with his language if he is going to be talking about things that touch on serious medical details.” Fauci and others have had to clean up after hyperbolic or inaccurate presidential comments at briefings and in media interviews. “It’s more of a Bill Clinton ‘I feel your pain’ thing, but he has got to get better at using language that is more emotional,” she added. “He’s good at doing it with anger and fear.”

“During a public health emergency of this nature, the president should use the bully pulpit to do three things: disseminate accurate information about the outbreak, give people useful guidance on how to protect themselves and their families, and offer assurances that the government is doing everything it can to bring the crisis to an end,” said Alex Conant, a former communications adviser to Marco Rubio. “Giving people good information removes uncertainty and fear. Giving people guidance gives them something to do and helps slow the virus's spread. Telling people what the government is doing gives people hope. The bully pulpit is the president's most powerful tool — he should use it in the most strategic ways possible.”

“It might not be a bad plan at this particular juncture to be asking people to look after their own health,” Mair said. She recommended that perhaps Trump publicly go on walks himself. Also given that people are sheltering in place with their families right now, it might not be a bad move for the president to focus on his when speaking to the public. “Whatever you think of Trump and whatever you think of his kids, they're clearly a tight-knit group,” she observed. Trump also has a former top surgeon in his Cabinet in Ben Carson, albeit at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

As the coronavirus drags on, it threatens to become the defining issue of the 2020 presidential campaign. Trump will be judged heavily not just on his words, but on his deeds — and how this ends, if it does at all in any meaningful sense by Election Day. “If he is successful, he will be reelected,” said O’Connell, the Republican strategist. “If, for some reason, voters feel Biden could have achieved a better outcome, then Trump will be a one-term president. So far, Trump’s optimistic strategy is paying dividends.” But it’s a long way between now and November.

W. James Antle III is a reporter for the Washington Examiner.

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