The Memo: Virus crisis upends political world

The coronavirus has upended the political world in record time, remaking the terrain on which the 2020 presidential election will be fought.

The contours of the race for the White House seemed set on Monday, but had been transformed by Thursday.

The general consensus until this week had been that President TrumpDonald John TrumpDonald Trump and Joe Biden create different narratives for the election The hollowing out of the CDC Poll: Biden widens lead over Trump to 10 points MORE would be buoyed in his battle for reelection by the strong economy, even as his Democratic challenger — almost certain to be former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenDonald Trump and Joe Biden create different narratives for the election Poll: Biden widens lead over Trump to 10 points Biden: 'We are a nation in pain, but we must not allow this pain to destroy us' MORE — would seek to capitalize on the president’s polarizing personality.

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Instead, after a disorientating few days, the nation faces its biggest public health crisis in decades, the stock market is tumbling, the broader economy is teetering and the immediate future looks ominous.

Even Republicans acknowledge that Trump is facing one of his sternest tests.

“This is probably the most significant crisis he has faced in his presidency, and no president is fully prepared for their first crisis,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak.

In such circumstances, Mackowiak added, “everything is tested — and we are seeing that now.”

Mackowiak asserted that the administration’s response was improving over time. But others dissented from that view, especially in relation to Trump’s Oval Office address on the crisis, delivered on Wednesday evening.

Trump was widely criticized for the stiff delivery of his speech, his lack of emphasis on testing for the coronavirus and for several statements that needed to be corrected or clarified later.

“I don’t know if I have seen a worse presidential speech in my lifetime,” said Democratic strategist Mark Longabaugh, hitting Trump for his tone and for, in Longabaugh’s view, reading the address almost robotically from a teleprompter.

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The crisis has given Biden the opportunity to present himself as a president-in-waiting — and one with a steadier hand than the incumbent.

Giving a speech on Thursday morning, the former vice president contended that the Trump administration had been guilty of a “colossal” failure in its response to the coronavirus.

Biden laid out his own plan, said government should “stop at nothing” to provide effective testing and warned against “favoritism” — presumably a reference to Trump’s decision to exempt the United Kingdom from new travel restrictions affecting most of Europe.

Biden also took direct aim at Trump. Dealing with such a crisis, he said, is “the responsibility of a president. That is what is owed to the American people.”

Even some independent observers believe the crisis could strengthen Biden’s electoral appeal.

In a moment of peril, they suggested, his orthodox and methodical style could pose an appealing contrast to the more tempestuous Trump.

“This particular story can’t be talked down or bullied or manipulated through speeches and rallies,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications. “It plays to all of Trump’s weaknesses, and to the perceived strengths of an experienced longtime politician, known to the public, like Joe Biden.”

The two most senior Democrats in Congress, Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Pelosi Sunday shows preview: Leaders weigh in as country erupts in protest over George Floyd death 5 things to know about US-China tensions over Hong Kong Pelosi calls Trump's decision to withdraw US from WHO 'an act of extraordinary senselessness' MORE (Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerFederal judges should be allowed to be Federalist Society members Warren condemns 'horrific' Trump tweet on Minneapolis protests, other senators chime in VA hospitals mostly drop hydroxychloroquine as coronavirus treatment MORE (N.Y.), issued a joint statement Thursday morning condemning Trump for his failure to “say how the administration will address the lack of coronavirus testing kits throughout the United States.”

The shortfall in testing in the United States has become an increasing focus of criticism for the administration. According to an analysis by Business Insider, the United States has issued only about five tests for every 1 million people, whereas in South Korea the figure is more than 3,600 per million.

After a Thursday briefing on Capitol Hill, Rep. Jan SchakowskyJanice (Jan) Danoff SchakowskyHillicon Valley: Trump signs order targeting social media legal protections | House requests conference with Senate after FISA vote canceled | Minneapolis systems temporarily brought down by hackers Democrats call on FTC to investigate allegations of TikTok child privacy violations Hillicon Valley: Facebook permanently shifting thousands of jobs to remote work | Congressional action on driverless cars hits speed bump during pandemic | Republicans grill TikTok over data privacy concerns MORE (D-Ill.) told CNN, “I think everyone … is feeling more confused than ever and disappointed in the numbers that we heard.”

Perceived failures by the administration could exact a heavy political price as the crisis continues to mount.

By Thursday, 36 deaths in the United States had been blamed on the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with the total cases rising to about 1,200. At least 40 states have been affected.

Those numbers are sure to rise — probably exponentially. A top health official in Ohio on Thursday estimated that more than 100,000 people in that state alone may already be infected.

The panic in financial markets intensified to its worst level yet on Thursday, as the Dow Jones Industrial Average posted its worst day in percentage terms since the crash of 1987. The Dow plunged 10 percent, or more than 2,300 points.

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Public anxiety grew amid a cascade of closures and cancellations. Professional sports leagues, including the NBA and the NHL, suspended their seasons. The NCAA’s “March Madness” was canceled.

In New York, Broadway shows will close through April 12. In California, Disneyland will close for only the fourth time in its history.

The actor Tom Hanks was diagnosed with coronavirus, as were two players for the NBA’s Utah Jazz, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell.

The crisis has taken on a dystopian sci-fi quality, as it pitches the nation — and the wider world — into anxiety and chaos at warp speed.

The economic hit seems sure to be severe. The impacts are only beginning to be felt by workers in the retail and events sectors, and countless others who could be affected by the closures of schools and businesses.

Among the president’s critics, at least, there is worry that he is particularly ill-suited to the moment.

“This is not a situation where leading from the gut is going to help the president,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne. “You need to trust institutions and process and science — all the things that Donald Trump has spent his presidency railing against.”

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But others warned that, politically speaking, there is still a long way to go — and time for the crisis to recede — before Trump has to face the voters in November.

“If the election was the first Tuesday of April, Donald Trump would be finished,” said Berkovitz. “But the election is the first Tuesday of November — and who knows what will happen between now and then?”

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