The Memo: Political tide on crisis threatens to turn against Trump

The political tide in the coronavirus crisis is threatening to turn against President Trump, who faces what he himself has called the biggest decision of his presidency on how swiftly to recommend a reopening of a nation buckling under the pandemic’s economic strain. 

Recent polls have shown public approval of his handling of the crisis ticking downward. His overall approval ratings have followed a similar trajectory, reversing the gains he made at the beginning of the crisis.

Trump could also be hurt as the true magnitude of the economic crisis begins to bite. 

Jobless figures released on Thursday showed an additional 6.6 million people had made new unemployment claims in the previous week, bringing the number of new claims over the past three weeks to around 16 million — a figure without any remotely close precedent.

The political climate is also fragile and feverish, with the nation amid a crisis that is both fast-changing and unparalleled in living memory. 

Trump’s presumed opponent in November, former Vice President Joe Biden, has a welcome chance to unify Democrats and progressives around his campaign after Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) suspended his campaign. That could be another piece of bad news for Trump, who likely benefited in 2016 when Sanders took his challenge to eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton through the summer.

There are some signs that the worst projections for the death tolls from COVID-19 may not be realized. On Sunday, Trump tweeted that “a very good sign is that empty hospital beds are becoming more and more prevalent.”

But right now, much is unknowable. 

Will other cities become coronavirus hot spots and witness the same distressing scenes that have played out in New York hospitals in recent weeks? Will the casualties slow during this month to a point where the U.S. clearly has the pandemic under some kind of control — or not? 

And what will the public mood be whenever the nation does take steps back toward normalcy — relieved and jubilant, or battered and angry?

Seven different polls were released last week measuring a nationwide match-up between Biden and Trump. The Democrat had the edge in six of them, and the seventh was a tie.

Trump, characteristically, remains bullish on the public health aspect of the crisis, the economy and his own reelection prospects.

He tweeted on Friday that “the invisible enemy” — meaning the virus — “will soon be in full retreat.” 

In recent days, Trump has also boasted more than once about the TV ratings of his White House press conferences, sought to sow discord among Democrats by suggesting Sanders’s chances in the nomination race were hobbled by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and retweeted a Twitter user asserting that “if Trump is tied with Biden, it probably actually means he is 10 points ahead.”

But, even beyond election “horse race” polls, there are signs of dimming public confidence in the president’s ability to handle a crisis that, as of Sunday evening, had resulted in the deaths of almost 22,000 people in the U.S. 

In at least three reputable polls, public opinion of his handling of the crisis has deteriorated.

An ABC News–Ipsos poll released on Friday showed 55 percent of Americans disapproving of Trump’s response to the crisis and 44 percent approving. The 11-point negative difference had been only five points a week before.

A Quinnipiac University poll conducted April 2-6 found 51 percent of respondents disapproving of his approach to the coronavirus and only 46 percent approving. 

Roughly a month before, a Quinnipiac poll had shown a plurality approving of Trump’s approach, 49 percent to 43 percent.

A CBS News poll released Friday found 52 percent of Americans asserting that he had done a bad job in response to the crisis, while only 47 percent said he had done a good job. It was the second week in a row the percentage saying he had done a good job had ticked down from a March high of 53 percent.

Similar patterns can be seen in Trump’s overall job approval ratings. In the RealClearPolitics average of polls on Sunday evening, the view of Trump’s job performance was a net negative 6.5 points (44.9 percent approve, 51.4 disapprove), down from a net negative 2.3 percent about two weeks ago.

Democrats have long believed that there is a low ceiling to Trump’s support and that a nation tired of the endless controversies of the past three years will balk at reelecting him. They believe that the current crisis copper-fastens that view.

There is also the question of whether further revelations about the Trump administration’s response to the crisis might accelerate a shift in public opinion against him. The New York Times on Sunday published a lengthy story including a number of damaging revelations that it said showed how “internal divisions, lack of planning and [Trump’s] faith in his own instincts led to a halting response.”

Dick Harpootlian, a Democratic state senator in South Carolina and a member of the Biden campaign’s finance committee, said that he had hoped that Trump would step up for the sake of the country and would be effective at combating the threat of coronavirus.

“But there are early indications that he was late to come to the party and, once he got there, he continues to display an amazing lack of understanding of his role in the process,” Harpootlian said.

Alluding to Trump’s push for an early economic recovery and, particularly, his repeated boosting of hydroxychloroquine as a potentially effective treatment for COVID-19 sufferers, Harpootlian added that “we are not looking for people to promise us things that the scientific community rejects out of hand.” 

To be sure, however, Trump’s political resilience has been underestimated before. Huge controversies, including special counsel Robert Mueller’s report and his impeachment, have failed to damage him seriously in terms of public opinion.

His advocates also argue that he could yet emerge as a political winner from the coronavirus crisis.

They note that the nation may be near its nadir right now. 

If the human toll exacted by COVID-19 is not quite so catastrophic as was once feared, and if the economy shows signs of life by fall, Trump’s political fortunes could also be resurgent.

Barry Bennett, who worked as a senior adviser on Trump’s 2016 campaign, argued, “I think when it is all over, people will think that governors and the president all had a significant role in making it less bad than it could have been, and that will be appreciated.”

As for the economy, Bennett said the picture will be much different right before the election to how it is now.

“Remember, growth is from quarter to quarter, so there is no doubt that the September number, which comes out in October, is going to be really good,” he said. “So that will be good to take into the election.”

In reality the economic outlook is almost completely unpredictable — particularly in terms of how fast the soaring unemployment figures can be brought back down.

For now, there is plenty of reason for nervousness among Team Trump.

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

Tags Bernie Sanders Coronavirus Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Robert Mueller
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