The Memo: Trump mulls the biggest gamble of his presidency
President Trump’s latest call to reopen the United States economy within weeks has put him on a collision course with public health officials.
If the president goes through with the idea of urging Americans back to work in less than a month, he would be rolling the dice in an extraordinary way amid the worst public health crisis in a century.
The potential downside is enormous. If Trump makes the move and the coronavirus surges anew, U.S. health systems could be overwhelmed and a huge number of people could die. The president would likely be held culpable in the minds of many for such a catastrophe.
But Trump might decide to take the gamble.
There is a best-case scenario, too — one in which the worst projections for the virus prove overblown and Trump is lauded by voters for saving their livelihoods in defiance of the more cautious advice of experts.
Trump has grown increasingly restless with the restrictions that have been erected to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Around 100 million Americans are already under stay-at-home orders or about to be subject to such instructions.
Trump said during a Fox News virtual town hall event Tuesday that he “would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter.”
Easter Sunday falls on April 12.
Last week, Trump said the coronavirus crisis could last until July or August.
Also on Tuesday, Trump tweeted that “our people want to return to work” and suggested, as he has on other occasions, that it is possible both to combat the virus and to resume some level of economic activity.
“We can do two things together. THE CURE CANNOT BE WORSE (by far) THAN THE PROBLEM!” he tweeted.
Liberals have reacted with fury to Trump’s approach, suggesting he is needlessly risking innumerable American deaths.
One broadly representative response came from the NAACP’s Sherrilyn Ifill, who in a tweet accused Trump of trying “to walk this country in to catastrophic human suffering for the sake of the stock market.”
The dangers to human life of easing restrictions too early are crystal clear. Yet to suggest that the economic ramifications of the crisis are limited to the stock market is itself an oversimplification.
Unemployment claims are spiraling at a rate never seen before. Economic projections for the immediate future are dire. Poor, working-class and middle-class Americans are likely to suffer far more acute distress than the rich as a result.
The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute predicted on Tuesday that new unemployment claims for the third week of March alone could reach 3.4 million, a figure that the authors wrote would “dwarf every other week in history.”
Morgan Stanley researchers on Monday suggested the nation could see gross domestic product contract by 30 percent, on an annualized basis, for the second quarter.
James Bullard, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, predicted on Sunday that unemployment could hit 30 percent in the second quarter. If he is right, that would outstrip peak unemployment during the Great Depression, and would be three times as bad as the highest rate recorded during the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.
The heart of the problem is stark but simple.
With Americans largely locked down at home, economic activity — beyond the purchase of groceries and medication — has ground almost to a halt.
“This is way worse than the global financial crisis because it is an evaporation of aggregate demand,” Anthony Scaramucci, the former White House communications director, told The Hill on Monday.
Trump is desperate to get the economy moving again and has consistently been bullish about the prospects of a quick recovery. Last week, he promised the economy would come “roaring back” once the crisis passes.
It is impossible to divorce such predictions from Trump’s own electoral goals, however. The presidential election is little more than seven months away, and the strong economy that was expected to be Trump’s strongest card has been ripped away.
Fighting an election campaign amid a deep recession would be a huge problem for any president and perhaps insurmountable for someone as divisive as Trump.
That raises the incentives for him to restore some level of economic normalcy — however fragile — and portray himself as the leader who stuck to his guns and got the nation out of a deep trough.
Such an outcome is not impossible. Polling has shown an uptick in Trump’s fortunes since the crisis began. In a new Gallup poll released Tuesday, his approval rating had risen to 49 percent — tied for the highest of his presidency.
Trump, whose political instincts can often be underestimated by his ideological opponents, could also be picking up on a fear on the part of many Americans that is focused on losing their livelihoods more than losing their lives.
All that said, many experts argue that it simply isn’t correct to present the choice as a mutually exclusive one between public health and economic recovery.
“I think that is an entirely false choice,” professor Lawrence Gostin, a health expert at Georgetown Law, told The Hill earlier this week.
“The only way for the economy to rebound and become resilient is if we get the COVID-19 pandemic under control. You can’t have hospitals overrun, people dying and critical workers getting sick — and have an economy that is working,” Gostin said.
Trump is far from the only politician mulling the right way forward.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who has won widespread praise even as the Empire State slides deeper into crisis, made similar comments during a Monday press conference.
“You can’t stop the economy forever,” Cuomo said. “So we have to start to think about, does everyone stay out of work? Should young people go back to work sooner? Can we test for those who had the virus, resolved, and are now immune and can they start to go back to work?”
That kind of staggered start to a return to normalcy may become the most likely option.
But for now, timing is almost everything.
If Trump gets it right, he will defy his critics once again. But if he moves ahead too early, the consequences could be dire — both for the nation and for his own political fortunes.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.
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