President Trump faces hard tests from Democrats and coronavirus

President Trump faces hard tests from Democrats and coronavirus
© Greg Nash

The coronavirus has transformed life as we know it. Levels of uncertainty are high, and Americans are looking to elected officials, particularly in the federal government, for leadership and direction now more than ever. This will no doubt be the greatest leadership test that Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTwitter CEO: 'Not true' that removing Trump campaign video was illegal, as president has claimed Biden formally clinches Democratic presidential nomination Barr says he didn't give 'tactical' command to clear Lafayette protesters MORE will face as president. His handling of this crisis will not only define his legacy in the White House, but will also make or break his chances for reelection.

For Democrats, Joe Biden cemented his front runner status in the primary by dominant wins in Mississippi, Missouri, and Michigan, and his lead will soon be insurmountable for Bernie Sanders to overcome. But winning the nomination will force Biden to confront the serious challenge of uniting the party before he can fully transition to a general election campaign.

While the rise of coronavirus has all but halted daily campaigning, Biden and Sanders remain ready to debate in their first single matchup tonight. This debate is a test of Biden and his strategy of uniting the party and a test of how Sanders can balance advocating his progressive agenda with not hurting the general election prospects of Biden. If Democrats are able to coalesce before the convention this summer all the way to November, their chances of defeating Trump increase dramatically, though this still might not be enough to ensure that he stays president for just one term.

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However, severe mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis has the ability to weaken Trump enough to damage his electoral fortunes, even more so than impeachment, Democrats, or even Biden. The administration has so far handled this pandemic incredibly poorly, and it has now contributed to tanking markets and halting economic activity. Moreover, Trump himself has likely worsened the disaster by making public statements about the coronavirus spread that are either very misleading or completely false.

Trump has compared the coronavirus to the flu, a comparison that health officials disagree with, given the higher fatality rate of coronavirus, which is estimated to be around 1 percent. Trump has also claimed that millions of coronavirus tests have been distributed around the country, and that anyone who wants to get tested can, a categorically false claim indicated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose limited public data indicates that as of Friday, less than 2,000 people have been tested, with another 9,000 tests coming in from private labs across the country.

Presidents throughout history have faced make or break moments during times of crisis. Mismanagement of a crisis can seriously harm a president in the eyes of the public, and can cast a lingering shadow on his legacy. Take, for instance, George Bush failing to quickly respond to Hurricane Katrina. This illustrated the perils that presidents can face when they fail to deal with national crises in an efficient and compassionate way. Over a decade later, his legacy remains tainted. As people saw the aftermath in horror, Bush continued a vacation at his ranch, and decided to return to Washington days after the devastating storm claimed lives and homes.

For Trump, his misleading statements have simply worsened this crisis by creating a high degree of confusion among Americans across the country, who have shown a high degree of panic and alarm. Indeed, his failures as president are compounded by the global nature of the pandemic, which has now decimated much of the growth in the economy that Trump and Republicans once touted as his most essential argument for reelection.

While Democrats might still not have a strong enough case on their own to defeat Trump, his continued mismanagement of this pandemic could be strong enough to keep him from clinching a second term. Americans are scared, concerned, and need leadership. The federal government and Trump have so far failed them. However, it has become clear over recent days that this public health crisis is still far from over. The way that Trump manages this pandemic moving forward will make or break his chances for reelection and, perhaps more importantly, will define his presidency.

Douglas Schoen is a consultant who served as an adviser to President Bill Clinton and to the campaign of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. His latest book is “Collapse: A World in Crisis and the Urgency of American Leadership.”