GOP views next few weeks as critical for Trump
President Trump’s actions over the next few weeks to contain the coronavirus and stabilize the economy may determine whether voters give him a second term in office.
Only weeks ago, Trump appeared to be in a strong position for reelection.
Despite being impeached by the House, the president’s approval ratings were near their all-time highs and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, which was viewed as a risky bet by many Democrats.
All of a sudden, Trump is presiding over a shaky economy. The pandemic afflicting the country has resulted in a brutal stock market sell-off and raised questions about whether the U.S. will dip into a recession.
At the same time, former Vice President Joe Biden has emerged as his likely challenger in November, potentially putting new states like Florida in play in the general election. Democratic turnout in the primary has surged behind Biden, and he’s received strong support from the suburban voters who delivered a House majority for Democrats in 2018.
Officials in Trump’s orbit acknowledge the political situation has changed and that the economy will be a major factor this fall. Yet they are also exuding confidence about Trump’s chances.
“We understand the economy is the whole ballgame,” said one administration official. “At the same time, it’s an opportunity for the president to draw a leadership contrast with Biden. The president is totally equipped to handle this and the story will change once the markets rebound.”
The Dow Jones Industrial Average shed another 2,300 points on Thursday. After reaching an all-time high of 29,500 in mid-February, the index ended the latest day of trading around 21,200.
There are fears that a lost quarter of economic growth might turn into a prolongated recession, as consumers hunker down and companies scale back production.
“Wall Street taketh away a lot faster than it giveth,” former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele told The Hill. “The hard reality is, your 401(k) today is likely a lot lighter than it was two weeks [ago]. That means retirement, vacations, education, or new kitchen cabinets look less likely for a lot of people today.”
There is little doubt the economy is taking a major hit from the coronavirus.
The National Basketball Association has suspended its season. Major League Baseball has delayed Opening Day. Movie releases are being pushed back and there are reports of panicked consumers stockpiling goods from retail outlets.
Some experts have warned that the panic over the virus might be worse than the pandemic itself, straining the health care system and provoking irrational consumer and investor behavior.
Trump has made a point to push for calm, particularly around the financial markets.
“The markets are gonna be just fine,” Trump said from the White House on Thursday.
Policymakers are also working to provide immediate help.
The New York Federal Reserve injected new liquidity into the markets on Thursday while Congress is working on an emergency spending package. Trump is considering a national emergency to free up additional resources to combat the disease, among other things.
The challenges for Trump go beyond markets to problems in how the U.S. has responded to the virus. There is growing outrage over the lack of availability of test kits for the coronavirus, which has likely suppressed the known number of cases in the U.S.
Biden and Democrats have also sought to focus public attention on Trump’s handling of the crisis.
“Unfortunately, this virus laid bare the severe shortcomings of the current administration,” Biden said Thursday in his own address on the coronavirus. “Public fears are being compounded by pervasive lack of trust in this president.”
Republicans interviewed by The Hill remained confident, believing Trump struck the right notes in the Oval Office address.
Many are more worried about the panic surrounding the coronavirus, which is the first major pandemic in the age of social media. There is a belief that Democrats and the news media are sensationalizing the story and talking the economy down to score political points against Trump.
“The Democrats and the media are stoking a lot of fear around this, that’s obvious,” said one Republican with close ties to the White House. “At the same time, a lot depends on whether this is a short term drop or a long-term recession. If this lasts into the fall, of course it hurts him. If it’s over in two months, he’ll be fine.”
The hope in GOP circles is that the worst-case scenarios around the virus do not materialize, leaving plenty of time for the markets and the economy to bounce back between now and November.
“If the virus does result in a recession, I fully expect Democrats will be calling this the Trump economy and risk appearing to be enjoying the bad news a little too much,” said Sam Geduldig, a prominent Republican lobbyist in Washington.
“Right now, none of this shit is good for Republicans. I agree right now that if the economy turns, it’s not ideal for Trump’s reelection. But Trump’s impeachment feels like it was years ago. Two weeks ago, everyone who makes a living in D.C. thought Bernie Sanders would win the presidential nomination. There is a chance that this stabilizes and things go back to normal people will end up just remembering it as something that happened.”
Many Republicans view Biden as a weak and bumbling candidate whose deficiencies will be exposed in a one-on-one debate with the president.
But at the moment, Biden is steamrolling his way to the Democratic nomination. There are signs he will be a formidable challenger to Trump in the key Midwest battlegrounds that could determine the outcome of the 2020 election.
In the Michigan primary on Tuesday, Democratic turnout shattered records, spiking 33 percent over 2016 turnout.
That surge has been driven by black voters, moderates and suburbanites. Trump is struggling mightily among voters in the suburbs and with moderates, who are turned off by his style and tone.
“The same type of voter, including some traditional Republicans, who came out and flipped those House seats in 2018 are coming out in support of an alternative to Trump in these primaries,” said Patrick Murray, the polling director at Monmouth University.
“For many of these voters, if their option was Bernie Sanders, it would be a lot tougher for them. Joe Biden makes it easier. The big questions are whether these suburban voters who jumped ship from Republicans in 2016 outnumber the working-class voters who feel the system is against them and went for Trump, and whether Biden can cut into those working-class voters in 2020.”