Coronavirus will define election and trust in government for generations

Coronavirus will define election and trust in government for generations
© United Press International

Americans are now confronting a dire new reality as a result of the novel coronavirus. The stock market has cratered and erased all gains earned since President Trump took office, states are delaying primary elections, and residents of two very populated states, California and New York, are facing varying degrees of stay at home mandates. The seriousness of this situation cannot be overstated. This crisis will upend our way of life for an undefined and extended period of time. More importantly, this crisis will define the upcoming general election and has the power to dramatically reshape the level of public trust in government for generations to come.

California Governor Gavin Newsom declared the extraordinary action of ordering all state residents to stay at home. Similarly, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo mandated that all workers in nonessential businesses are required to stay home, banned all nonessential gatherings, and enacted a law to ensure that state residents above the age of 70 remain indoors and that anyone visiting them take the appropriate public health precautions.

The two states have a combined population of 59 million people, which means that together their mandates affect nearly one in five Americans, with more states likely to implement similar measures. Additionally, the actions taken are examples of actions that Trump may need to do on the national level if circumstances continue to worsen as they are expected. Moreover, it is now clear that the ultimate outcome of the 2020 election will be based almost entirely on how Americans react to this pandemic.

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In the Democratic primary, Joe Biden holds a commanding delegate lead over Bernie Sanders. Biden won all three primary contests last week, and this sweeping victory has forced Sanders to honestly reassess the future of his campaign in a race that has fundamentally shifted due to the public health crisis caused by the coronavirus. According to Real Clear Politics, Biden, who was trailing Sanders by 10 points last month, now enjoys a comfortable lead of 20 points over Sanders with 55 percent of the vote.

When these two candidates debated last weekend, it demonstrated that this race is now a battle between divergent and opposing worldviews of the coronavirus pandemic. On the one hand, Biden compared the fight against the coronavirus to a war, positioning himself as a steady tested leader with the experience to lead through this pandemic and economic crisis. On the other hand, Sanders framed the impact of the coronavirus as an indication that the current system is broken, calling for a revolution and the implementation of sweeping programs such as Medicare for All.

Given the recent primary results and polling data, Biden has resonated more strongly with the Democratic voters, and Sanders no longer has a viable path to the nomination. While the election this fall will apparently be a contest of Trump versus Biden, it will really be a contest of Trump versus the coronavirus. His handling of this crisis will not only define his legacy, but will also make or break his chances for reelection. Given the financial crash, looming recession, and public health emergency, Trump faces one of the toughest challenges of any modern president. But his response thus far has generated a great deal of confusion and distrust.

According to a recent Marist Poll, only 37 percent of Americans say they have a good amount or a great deal of trust in what they are hearing from the president on this crisis, while 60 percent say they had not very much or no trust at all in what Trump is saying. While his approach to this crisis has been concerning, the most worrying sign now is the declining level of trust that Americans have in the ability of the government to respond to a public health crisis, especially as the situation grows more dire by the day.

Only 46 percent of Americans say they have confidence that the federal government is doing enough to prevent a rapid spread of the coronavirus, down from 61 percent last month. Americans now have less trust in their government than in the media, the traditional whipping boy during times of crisis. A Morning Consult survey found almost 60 percent of Americans say they have a lot or some trust in broadcast news, while only 43 percent of Americans say the same about information coming from the president.

Such distrust in government is detrimental when Americans across the country are looking to their elected officials, particularly federal officials, for leadership, answers, and direction during this national crisis. The way Trump manages this pandemic moving forward will define his legacy as president and his chances for reelection, but will also have the power to broadly reshape the public view of government for generations to come.

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.”