The Memo: Public may be more cautious than Trump on reopening

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President Trump on Thursday made his most concrete move yet to nudge the nation toward normalcy, laying out guidelines for how states could start to reopen.

“We can begin the next front in our war,” Trump told reporters at a White House news conference on the coronavirus crisis. “We are opening up our country. America wants to be open and Americans want to be open.”

But the push to restart regular economic activity is fraught with political risk — and comes in the face of poll numbers that show widespread public caution about such a move. 

For now, that caution crosses partisan lines, raising the stakes even further for Trump.

An Economist/YouGov poll conducted from April 12-14 found an overwhelming majority of respondents asserting that social distancing could not be relaxed until after May 1. 

Seventy-one percent of respondents expressed that view, whereas only 14 percent said they thought such a move could happen before that day.

Eighty-one percent of Democrats said a relaxation of distancing could only happen after May 1. A strong majority of Republicans, 64 percent, agreed.

That suggests an unusually strong degree of consensus in an otherwise polarized country that has been shell-shocked by a virus that had killed more than 30,000 people in the United States as of Thursday evening.

The president has previously suggested that weighing when to recommend some kind of resumption of business would be the biggest decision of his life. 

He insisted on Thursday that “we are not opening all at once but one careful step at a time.”

The guidelines released by the White House recommended that states and regions see a decline in documented cases of coronavirus infection over a period of 14 days, ensure that hospitals can treat all patients without crisis care, and have a robust testing program in place, including antibody tests for at-risk health care workers.

That, in turn, is only the first phase in a three-phase approach. 

Trump also acknowledged that governors and local officials had the power to make these decisions themselves — something which he had not done a few days previously, when he made the startling claim that he had “total” authority over the nation.

Yet at the same time, Trump is eager to position himself as the main driver of any move toward reopening the economy.

“Now that we have passed the peak in new cases, we are starting our life again. We are starting the rejuvenation of our economy again,” he said Thursday evening.

The president has long favored as early a reopening as possible. At one point, he had suggested Easter, April 12, as one possible threshold. After backing off that date, he has suggested May 1 as another possibility.

At the same time, a growing drumbeat in conservative media circles has cast doubt on the most catastrophic projections of the overall death toll from COVID-19 and emphasized the economic imperatives for trying to get the nation back on track.

Many of the major figures in conservative radio and cable news have expressed varying degrees of skepticism about the need for ongoing, maximal restrictions.

Some Democrats see a splintering along partisan lines as ominous — yet also potentially politically beneficial for Trump.

“Trump’s only chance of ‘winning’ in the political fallout is if this becomes a Red America versus Blue America construct,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne. 

“If this is just about Donald Trump and whether or not he can administer government in a time of crisis, this is a loser for him. But if this is Donald Trump fighting the WHO and the Chinese and Nancy Pelosi, then Trump has a better chance of winning the peace,” Payne said.

For now, the public is prioritizing health concerns over any other issue, however.

This is reflected, so far, in a strong degree of adherence to behavioral guidelines as to how to mitigate the crisis.

In a Reuters/IPSOS poll, 81 percent of Democrats and 76 percent of Republicans said they had “avoided physical contact with others, such as handshakes.” Similar numbers — 81 percent and 79 percent respectively — said they were “avoiding large gatherings of people whenever possible.”

That level of public fear seems unlikely to dissipate, regardless of pronouncements from the president or state-level officials.

There are “individual choices and behavior regardless of what the government says,” said GOP strategist Dan Judy. “If people aren’t ready to go back, they are not going to go back. And right now, people are still worried.”

It is, of course, also possible that the polling numbers could begin to move. In addition to the vocal skepticism of some right-wing commentators, the economic pain of the shutdown may become too much for people to bear, even if they are simultaneously worried about the health dangers.

Unemployment figures released Thursday morning showed 5.2 million new unemployment claims having been filed the previous week. That brought the total new jobless claims in a month to a jaw-dropping 22 million.  

Many more people could come to agree with Trump’s insistence Thursday that “a national shutdown is not a sustainable long-term solution” — especially if the threat from the virus continues to recede.

For now, the outcome simply cannot be known.

“It’s an extremely difficult decision from both a political and policy standpoint. For any president, this would be an extremely hard decision,” said Judy. “The difficulty of it gets lost in the whole Trump circus. If Barack Obama or Ronald Reagan or Abraham Lincoln was president, it would still be an extremely hard decision.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Tags Barack Obama Coronavirus Donald Trump Nancy Pelosi reopen economy

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