Americans are coming to grips with the fact that there will be no quick end to the coronavirus crisis — a realization that will shake up the 2020 presidential race in profound ways.
President TrumpDonald John TrumpIllinois governor says state has gotten 10 percent of medical equipments it’s requested Biden leads Trump by 6 points in national poll Tesla offers ventilators free of cost to hospitals, Musk says MORE has sought to shift expectations in recent days, acknowledging that the de facto shutdown of the nation’s economy will last longer than he had originally hoped and that the death toll will likely climb far higher.
But Democrats are by no means guaranteed to reap a political dividend from Trump’s performance, even though the president underplayed the severity of the crisis in its early days and has been widely criticized in the media for doing so.
Trump’s approval ratings have risen to among the highest of his presidency. In an ABC News-Washington Post poll released Sunday, Trump’s net job approval was in positive territory for the first time ever — 49 percent approval and 47 disapproval. The same poll showed him edging out probable Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden leads Trump by 6 points in national poll The Memo: Political world grapples with long coronavirus shutdown The Hill’s Campaign Report: North Carolina emerges as key battleground for Senate control MORE nationwide by 2 percentage points in a general election match-up.
“I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead,” Trump said at Tuesday’s White House briefing on the crisis. Adopting a notably somber tone, Trump predicted “a very, very painful two weeks” before Americans would “start seeing some real light at the end of the tunnel.”
No pollster or pundit can predict the political ramifications of a very prolonged shutdown, however. Trump has shifted from an initial hope that the United States could be back open for business by April 12 to an acknowledgement that the current social distancing measures and other guidelines should stay in place at least until the end of the month.
Other elected officials have suggested a much longer shut-in. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) on Monday issued a “stay-at-home” order that will not expire until June 10, although it could be lifted before then.
However, it seems sure that the worst of the crisis will be over well before November’s election — even though the economic effects seem sure to endure.
Do voters, by November, express a collective sigh of relief and give some measure of credit to Trump that the worst is over? Or do they emerge more wearily, blinking into a landscape where the economy is in peril, the death toll may have reached six figures and Trump’s chances of a second term have been vaporized?
Right now, no one knows.
“It is just too hard to game out, when we are apparently very early in that process,” said Dick Harpootlian, a Democratic South Carolina state senator and a member of Biden’s campaign finance committee.
“Is it going to be over in June? July, August, September? We don’t know. Can we come up with other ways other than knocking on doors to campaign? What is the economy going to be like? There is just a whole myriad of factors we don’t know,” he added.
Some Democrats insist that voters, including those in the middle ground or even “soft supporters” of Trump, will come to see his failings, even if the nation appears to be back on the upswing by November.
“For the average American, they look at Donald Trump, and it doesn’t look like he knows what he’s doing — and it also doesn’t look as if he is willing to defer to the people who do know what they’re doing,” said Democratic strategist Basil Smikle Jr.
Smikle added, “Even if voters do not remember the day-to-day behavior of Trump, they will come away with a sense of his leadership ability that will linger for some time.”
Republicans see that as much too harsh. They see Trump’s promises and pronouncements as simply the kind of effort that would be expected from any leader trying to bolster national morale at a time of national crisis.
“I think the president is trying to be the optimist,” said GOP strategist John Feehery, who is also a columnist for The Hill. “He is trying to talk up the economy and be very aggressive in reopening the economy because he understands that the economy is also very important for the emotional health of the American people.”
Feehery also argued that Trump should not necessarily be bound by every suggestion of the health experts who flank him at his near-daily press briefings, notably Dr. Anthony FauciAnthony FauciOvernight Health Care: White House projects grim death toll from coronavirus | Trump warns of ‘painful’ weeks ahead | US surpasses China in official virus deaths | CDC says 25 percent of cases never show symptoms Good communication will help beat COVID-19 14 things to know for today about coronavirus MORE and Dr. Deborah Birx.
He made the argument, heard with increasing regularity in pro-Trump circles, that a president has to consider a multiplicity of issues and factors, not just one group of experts.
“It’s a balancing act,” Feehery said. “If you did what all the medical experts are saying, you would never open up again. There is always risk in life, you know? It’s about having the appropriate [level of] risk.”
Still, Trump himself has clearly sought to shift expectations — and not only in terms of the date by which the U.S. could again be open for business.
At Tuesday’s briefing, the White House laid out data suggesting that 240,000 Americans could die from COVID-19 even in a scenario where mitigation efforts are widely followed. “It’s a matter of life and death, frankly,” said Trump.
On Sunday, Trump had insisted, regarding the eventual American death toll, that “if we can hold that down, as we’re saying, to 100,000 … we all together have done a very good job.”
That, in turn, was in stark contrast to earlier pronouncements, including Trump’s assertion at the end of February that the threat from coronavirus is “going to disappear.”
For now, the nation has battened down its hatches. And even seasoned political operatives simply don’t know what will happen once the storm has passed.
“Look, Donald Trump may come out of this as a hero,” said Harpootlian, the South Carolina Democrat. “Do I think that will happen? Do I think it’s likely? No. But it’s too early to tell.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.