The Memo: Trump struggles for traction with 2020 message

President Trump is struggling to gain traction with his reelection message, as the death toll from the coronavirus crisis mounts and the economy reels.

Trump had been expected to make the economy the centerpiece of his message earlier this year, until unemployment soared amid the pandemic. 

The rate of new infections from COVID-19 is now climbing in many parts of the country. The Republican governors of Texas and Florida have moved to pause the reopening process, making the prospects of a fast economic resurgence — something that Trump has been desperate to see — look even less likely.

The barrage of bad news for Trump — which has been exacerbated by protests that have roiled the nation following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month — has hollowed out the president’s 2020 platform.

During an interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News on Thursday, Trump was asked what his “top priority items” were for his second term, if elected.

Trump’s answer was strikingly vague and devoid of any substantive policy. He instead noted that he “never did this before” and had spent a limited period of time in Washington before becoming president. “Now I know everybody. And I have great people in the administration,” he added.

That response attracted plenty of adverse comment on social media, but a more telling intervention came from the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

In an editorial published online Thursday evening, the Journal’s editorial board contended that Trump had “no second-term agenda, or even a message beyond four more years of himself.”

The Journal also complained that “his default now is defensive self-congratulation” and that recent rallies in Oklahoma and Arizona “were dominated by personal grievances.”

The fact that dissatisfaction with Trump’s approach is being sounded from such a conservative quarter is surely a warning sign for his reelection hopes. 

Opinion polls have been sounding the alarm on that score for some time, however.

Trump trailed his presumptive Democratic opponent Joe Biden by almost 10 points in the RealClearPolitics national polling average on Sunday morning — a larger deficit than he faced against Hillary Clinton at this point in the 2016 election cycle.

Trump is also lagging in almost all the key battleground states, including Florida, which is close to a must-win for him. A Fox News poll released Thursday put Biden ahead by 9 points in the Sunshine State.

Most experts do not expect the race to be decided by such sweeping margins come November, either nationwide or in the swing states, given the degree of polarization that grips the country.

But the current poll ratings and the murmurs of conservative disaffection highlight that neither Trump’s case for his own candidacy nor his aggressive attacks on Biden have had the desired effect.

Trump frequently suggests that Biden, who is 77, is not up to the mental rigors of being president — a message that has been amplified by his campaign and by media allies. But so far, Biden’s preferred narrative — that he would restore normalcy to American politics following Trump’s tumult — seems to be carrying the day.

The Trump campaign pushes back vigorously at the idea that it does not have a strong positive case to make.

A spokesperson for the campaign, Samantha Zager, told The Hill that Trump’s economic record remains strong and that he should not be held culpable for the disruption caused by a once-in-a-century public health crisis. 

“Before the booming economy was artificially interrupted by an unprecedented pandemic, President Trump’s pro-growth policies, tax cuts, and deregulation delivered record economic success – and he’ll do it again,” Zager said via email. She also drew attention to Trump’s trade deals, the low unemployment numbers that were seen prior to the pandemic among minority groups and his “stopping endless wars.”

The campaign’s advertising has sometimes sought to put forth a positive message, too — even if its attacks on Biden tend to grab more headlines.

Earlier this month, the campaign launched two TV ads in one day, June 19. 

One of those ads, “Fortitude,” was devoted to bashing Biden as “clearly diminished.” But the other, “Just Getting Started,” began with jibes at Biden before pivoting to a more positive claim: “President Trump led us to the strongest economy in history. He did it his way. Not the Washington way. And he’s doing it again,” the narrator intoned.

The argument — that Trump’s unconventionality is an asset and that he could deliver an economic boom — was a potent one when he first ran for president. Whether it retains its luster after four controversial years and amid historically elevated levels of unemployment is a very different matter, as even some Republicans acknowledge.

Doug Heye, a former communications director of the Republican National Committee, outlined a scenario where the national unemployment rate — currently 13.3 percent — came down to about 10 percent just before Election Day.

“Is that number good news or bad news? The answer could be both. The campaign will make the argument that it is good news because it is coming down,” Heye said. But even in that optimistic reading, he added, “You will be having people who have got a new job but who were out of work for four months — and that has been a real hit on their family income. They may not view the president as favorably.”

Trump can argue that he has delivered on his promises in some cases— on trade policy, for example — or has done his best to do so in others, such as his efforts to build a wall on the southern border.

But, in 2020, after four years of Trump, the headwinds are severe. His pledge that he is in the process of restoring American greatness is, so far, not resonating with nearly enough voters.

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

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump George Floyd protests Hillary Clinton Joe Biden presidential election Sean Hannity

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