The Memo: Trump shifts stance amid coronavirus woes
President Trump is changing tack on the coronavirus after a long period during which public opinion of his response has drifted downward, taking his chances of reelection with it.
On Tuesday, he held the first White House press briefing focused on the pandemic since April.
There, in a more sober assessment than before, he acknowledged that the situation would “unfortunately get worse before it gets better” and insisted that his administration “will stop at nothing to save lives and shield the vulnerable.”
The previous day, Trump had for the first time tweeted a photo of himself wearing a mask, hailing this as a “patriotic” thing to do.
Trump had long sought to play down the pandemic’s threat — and he did not entirely abandon this approach on Tuesday, repeating his insistence that COVID-19 would ultimately “disappear.”
There is no evidence that it is disappearing any time soon. More than 140,000 people in the United States have died, and many states are currently dealing with a resurgence in cases.
People close to Trump have urged him to take a more realistic and proactive tone.
There is dismay within his orbit, not just at his sagging poll ratings but at the way his earlier efforts to present an optimistic face on the crisis have backfired.
Trump’s initial failure to comprehend the seriousness of the problem now looks like a catastrophic misstep. One infamous example came in February, when he said the total of 15 people then known to be infected in the United States was “going to be down to close to zero” within days.
This attitude is perceived to have fed into other problems such as early shortcomings in testing, which have contributed to the United States faring worse than many other nations.
In the ever-fractious world around Trump, there are also murmurings of discontent about the performance of other key players. The late April prediction by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, that the nation would be largely back to normal by June and “really rocking again” by July is one often-cited example.
The danger for Trump is that negative public perceptions of his response to the crisis may have already solidified.
Republicans acknowledge the challenges but hope the president can still turn things around.
Referring to Trump’s return to White House briefings on the topic, GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak said, “I think it is a recognition that the story has not gone away and it is going to be with us for a while. There was a hope that summer might lead to a brighter period, and that hasn’t happened.”
Mackowiak said that he believed there was an increasing realization on the part of the White House “that they have to take this on, both from a substantive policy standpoint and a public relations standpoint.”
The challenges in both respects are formidable, however.
Although there has been some positive news about progress toward a coronavirus vaccine — including promising results from researchers at the University of Oxford on Monday — an approved and widely available vaccine is likely several months away, at a minimum.
Meanwhile, several polls in recent days have demonstrated where the public stands.
A Fox News poll released on Sunday showed that presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden was favored over Trump by a 51 percent-34 percent margin to do a better job in tackling the pandemic.
An ABC News-Washington Post poll found Biden held an even bigger advantage — 20 points — on a similar question. And an Economist-YouGov poll indicated Trump’s response to COVID-19 won the approval of just 38 percent of adults, compared to 54 percent who disapproved.
Trump’s standing in head-to-head match-ups with Biden has sunk in tandem with his ratings on the pandemic. He lagged the Democrat by almost 9 points in the RealClearPolitics national polling average on Tuesday.
Trump loyalists are adamant that the president’s shift in his stance on the pandemic could pay off.
Barry Bennett, a senior adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign, argued that the president had not been given credit for some positive developments. The danger of the health system being entirely overwhelmed appears to have receded. In some instances, extra hospital capacity was provide and was lightly used, such as when the USNS Comfort hospital ship sailed into New York in the spring.
“It’s important” for Trump to get those elements of the story out there, Bennett argued, because “you can’t count on the mainstream press to tell good news.”
Brad Blakeman, a veteran of President George W. Bush’s White House and a Trump supporter, said that the president would be “well served” by returning to regular coronavirus briefings.
“There is risk, obviously, because the president is then putting attention every day on the pandemic,” Blakeman said. “But, having said that, the public is affected by the pandemic every day. They want to know what treatments are being advised, where are we on a vaccine, how does that affect the kids going back to school?”
Still, there are plenty of hurdles facing the president.
One is the simple fact that the virus has not been controlled in the United States. It is tough to see how Trump’s poll ratings turn upward unless that changes.
The other is the president’s capacity to wander off-script.
The previous spate of coronavirus briefings came to an end soon after the president suggested that injecting bleach could help treat COVID-19.
He avoided any slip-ups on that scale at Tuesday’s briefing. But he still has a political mountain left to climb.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.
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