The politics of a pandemic: How Trump will be judged in November

Why We Wrote This

For President Trump, the election is likely to hinge almost entirely on his handling of the COVID-19 crisis. He’s positioning himself to benefit politically from what goes right – and trying to avoid blame for what doesn’t.

Alex Brandon/AP
President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House April 13, 2020, in Washington.

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Since 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid” has been a mantra of presidential campaigns, courtesy of Democratic operative James Carville. Today, it’s President Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic that’s likely to shape voter calculations – though it and the economy are in many ways linked.

Already, the president has been setting expectations and positioning himself to take credit or deflect blame, depending on where things stand come November. He has pushed back hard on news reports that have portrayed him as slow to respond to early warnings about the virus. His daily briefings have featured blunt attacks on the reporters in the room and the “fake news” media in general. 

It’s possible that by November the public health emergency will be waning and the economy starting to come back. If that’s the case, “Trump could run on recovery – ‘morning in America,’” as President Ronald Reagan did in 1984 after a deep recession, says Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School poll of Wisconsin voters.

“But if we’re in a prolonged recession, let alone if there’s a second wave of the coronavirus in the fall,” he adds, “then we’re looking at a very different situation.” 

President Donald Trump’s bracing assertion on Monday that he will decide when to “open up the states” sparked a flurry of pushback.

In America’s decentralized federalist system, governors are the drivers of state policy, as even Trump-friendly scholars quickly noted. Orders to “stay at home” amid the pandemic – closing schools and most businesses – have come from governors and local authorities, not the president.  

In fact, President Trump himself has repeatedly pointed this out. Just days ago, he made a show of not issuing a nationwide call to shelter in place, as a once-in-a-lifetime global health crisis has swept the United States, killing thousands and wrecking a once-strong economy. So far more than 25,000 Americans have died and analysts say that the economy has lost more jobs in a month than had been created since the Great Recession.

But this seeming contradiction makes more sense when seen through the lens of the looming 2020 presidential election. Like all races featuring an incumbent, the election is likely to be a referendum on Mr. Trump’s performance in office. And he is positioning himself, analysts say, for a range of potential scenarios – to get credit if things are improving, and avoid blame if they’re not.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

“He has a knack for creating ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ conflicts,” says Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the New America think tank.

It’s possible that by November the public health emergency will be waning and the economy starting to come back. 

If that’s the case, “Trump could run on recovery – ‘morning in America,’” as President Ronald Reagan did in 1984 after a deep recession, says Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School poll of Wisconsin voters.

“But if we’re in a prolonged recession, let alone if there’s a second wave of the coronavirus in the fall,” he adds, “then we’re looking at a very different situation.” 

The politics of the pandemic have set up a push-and-pull dynamic between the Republican president and governors of the hardest-hit states, almost all Democrats. For the most part, they have appeared to work well together in procuring needed equipment and supplies, setting up unusual moments of mutual praise – most notably involving the governors of the nation’s two largest blue states, California and New York.

Such bipartisan collaboration helps both sides, and not just in addressing the critical needs of the moment. For Mr. Trump, it’s a good look as he campaigns for reelection – particularly with swing voters who could tip the election. For Govs. Gavin Newsom of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York, dubbed by some the “Trump whisperer,” the above-politics approach to crisis management may boost aspirations for a future presidential bid. 

Many governors have seen boffo poll numbers within their states on their handling of the pandemic, some upward of 80% – with high marks from Republican voters for Democratic leaders and vice versa. Mr. Trump, by contrast, saw a modest, early boost in overall job approval that quickly faded. His scores on handling the pandemic, which briefly made it above 50%, have also dipped. 

Perhaps predictably, many on Tuesday shot down Mr. Trump’s claim of “total” authority to reopen the country. 

“We don’t have a king; we have a president,” Governor Cuomo said on NBC’s “Today Show.” 

Mr. Trump responded on Twitter: “Cuomo’s been calling daily, even hourly, begging for everything, most of which should have been the state’s responsibility,” he wrote. 

Since 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid” has been a mantra of presidential campaigns, courtesy of Democratic operative James Carville.

Today, that seems only partly true, as Mr. Trump’s handling of the pandemic will also surely factor into voter calculations – though the two are in many ways linked. Analysts agree it’s too soon to say where either the economy or the pandemic will stand come November. 

But already, the president has been setting expectations and positioning himself to deflect blame if the economic and public health crises are still raging come November. He has pushed back hard on news reports, most comprehensively in The New York Times, that have portrayed him as slow to respond to early warnings about the virus. His daily briefings have featured blunt attacks on the reporters in the room and the “fake news” media in general. 

Models in late March that showed between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans dying from the coronavirus have been dialed back, as new information has become available. The models had also shown that without mitigation, between 1.5 million and 2.2 million people could have died. 

Though it’s Mr. Trump’s medical advisers who come up with the models, and not the president himself, he would still be able to claim as a victory any eventual death toll that’s lower than what was initially predicted, says Professor Franklin. 

“President Trump has a genuine talent for how he presents even bad outcomes, to turn those to his advantage,” Mr. Franklin says. 

Before the crisis hit, Mr. Trump was by no means a shoo-in for reelection, despite record-low unemployment and soaring markets. Even now, the deeply polarized electorate appears to be fairly frozen in place, with a slice of swing voters in a handful of states likely to determine the outcome. 

But the November election will “unquestionably” be a referendum on Mr. Trump, says Ari Fleischer, who served as White House press secretary for President George W. Bush. 

Mr. Trump has voter intensity on his side, with devoted followers and an opponent – former Vice President Joe Biden – who does not inspire enthusiasm, Mr. Fleischer says. Mr. Biden’s image will matter come the fall, he says, when the election inevitably becomes a choice.

And what of Mr. Trump’s talk about reopening the country? “He’s on the side of hope and on the side of what people want,” Mr. Fleischer says. “That cuts in the president’s favor.” 

Besides, he notes, Democrats are saying the same thing. On Monday, governors on both the east and west coasts formed regional coalitions aimed at looking ahead to a time when they can reopen their economies in a coordinated way. 

“If things bounce back, will [Mr. Trump] get credit for that? And if so, how much?” asks Christopher Wlezien, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin who has studied the impact of economic conditions on presidential elections. “That might be part of his thinking in not wanting to be involved in the closing of the economy, but wanting to be involved in reopening the economy.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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