Is coronavirus the final Trump crisis?

Is coronavirus the final Trump crisis?
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How many times have we heard “Trump’s handling of [insert crisis] will be a turning point and/or define his presidency”?

His firing of former FBI director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyFBI director Wray orders internal review of Flynn case Grenell says intelligence community working to declassify Flynn-Kislyak transcripts FBI director stuck in the middle with 'Obamagate' MORE; the Russia investigation; the tragic far-right rally in Charlottesville; the failed vote to repeal ObamaCare; tax cuts; Stormy Daniels; the 2018 midterms; Gen. James MattisJames Norman Mattis'Never Trump' Republicans: Fringe, or force to be reckoned with? Trump sending ally to Pentagon to vet officials' loyalty: report Pentagon watchdog unable to 'definitively' determine if White House influenced JEDI contract MORE’s resignation as Defense secretary; the crime reform bill; the government shutdown; the Mueller Report; the Ukraine whistleblower; NAFTA and USMCA; impeachment; the assassination of Iran’s Gen. Qassem Soleimani.‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

A few of these have been good for the president; many were bad. Will coronavirus be different?

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President TrumpDonald John TrumpMulvaney: 'We've overreacted a little bit' to coronavirus Former CBS News president: Most major cable news outlets 'unrelentingly liberal' in 'fear and loathing' of Trump An old man like me should be made more vulnerable to death by COVID-19 MORE’s popularity has wavered across these many crises, never dropping below 37 percent and never rising above 46 percent. The difference between 37 percent and 46 percent is huge come election day, of course — not just for the president, but also for down-ballot races. Think of these voters not as “Never Trumpers” but as “Sometimes Trumpers.” This 9 percent of the public want to support the president but at times struggle to do so. 

Trump’s strength among this group seems to come from his handling of the economy and trade — the two areas where his approval consistently exceeds 40 percent. By contrast, on immigration, health policy and foreign policy, voters have been less forgiving.

Coronavirus will test this group. The crisis threatens two main pillars of Trump’s popularity: the general economy and his governing style. Depending on how he responds, the crisis also presents an opportunity for him to seize the mantle of leadership in facing three challenges:

  • First, the economic threat. Goldman-Sachs predicts a 24 percent drop in GDP in the second quarter. The entire stock market gains of the Trump presidency have been wiped out. The foundation for his current popularity seems eroded.
  • Second, setting the tone. The president’s blunt and improvisational style — which infuriates the left and some in the center, but largely keeps his base loyal — may be ill-suited for this moment, when state and local leaders are asking people to act with compassion. 
  • Third, the role of government. The crisis demands a national solution. State and local leaders have stepped up, but all of them say that that’s not enough. The president regularly criticizes the “deep state.” In the past two weeks, he has changed course and begun to embrace technical experts. 

If the perception is that Trump’s inaction or, worse, his ineptness, has deepened the crisis — similar to President Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterHave the courage to recognize Taiwan Respect your Elders — a call to action Poll: Trump and Biden running neck and neck in Georgia MORE’s handling of the Iranian hostage crisis — then voters may hold that against Trump.

That is particularly critical in swing states, of course. Both there and across the country, it is worth watching the voters who are “Sometimes Trumpers.” This crisis will begin to affect not only their pocketbooks, but also the lives of their neighbors and family members.

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The extent to which the president is seen as responsible for either economic or human security — for good or bad — may be the ultimate determination in his reelection.

Both for “Sometimes Trumpers” and beyond, it is not just whether they approve of the president, but also whether they show up at all. How he performs during the crisis will affect voter turnout, among his base, in the middle and on the left.

Does the crisis have any potential upside? In Trump’s press conferences, he sounds serious, focused, non-ideological and even optimistic — for the most part. The president has said this is a “wartime” moment and he apparently is trying to demonstrate the kind of leadership that pushed the popularity of both Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush to exceptional levels after the first Gulf War and after 9/11, respectively.

The lesson from both Bush presidencies is not simply that crises led to a boom in their popularity; clearly they did. The deeper lesson is that managing a national security crisis is a sustained undertaking. Voters ultimately judge a president based on both economic and national security performance. But what goes up, may come down.

What Democrats do — presumptive nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Americans debate life under COVID-19 risks Biden set to make risky economic argument against Trump Hillicon Valley: Tech companies lead way on WFH forever | States and counties plead for cybersecurity assistance | Trump weighing anti-conservative bias panel MORE, in particular — will matter a great deal. Democrats in Congress, at the state and local level, and Biden himself must be careful not to criticize the commander-in-chief unnecessarily. Democrats currently hold most of the leverage on crafting the congressional stimulus. If they appear to make this about the president and oppose Trump at all turns, they run the risk of undermining a response and recovery. That doesn’t mean that they cannot have serious disagreements on policy. 

It is almost certain that non-party organizations and individuals will point to the president’s every misstep, poor decision and act of blamestorming. Trump’s safest path forward is to stay consistently presidential. Can he do that? In one recent news conference, Trump was asked to look backward and assess his previous statements. The president returned to the posture many revile and that his base adores: unapologetic and self-congratulatory. 

If Trump chooses that course, he may give Democrats every opportunity to say that the country saved itself, despite him.

William Antholis is the director and CEO of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, a think tank that studies the presidency. Follow him on Twitter @wjantholis.