Coronavirus poses risks for Trump in 2020
A new and dangerous coronavirus that has infected tens of thousands of people in China represents a potentially destabilizing threat to the global economy and Americans’ sense of security, twin strengths that President Trump hopes to rely on as he seeks reelection.
The virus, which has infected 13 people in the United States and killed more than 1,000 people globally, has been deemed a public health emergency of international concern by the World Health Organization. American health agencies are on high alert, screening travelers from China and working on potential vaccines and treatments.
The Trump administration has created a task force to organize and oversee the response to the virus, led by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have implemented mandatory 14-day quarantines for any traveler coming from Hubei Province, the epicenter of the outbreak.
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell told lawmakers on Tuesday the central bank is “closely monitoring the emergence of the coronavirus, which could lead to disruptions in China that spill over to the rest of the global economy.”
Trump himself has said he expects the outbreak to die down once the weather warms, a hypothesis not echoed by scientists.
“Now, the virus that we’re talking about having to do — you know, a lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat — as the heat comes in,” Trump told a gathering of the nation’s governors at the White House on Monday. “Typically, that will go away in April. We’re in great shape though. We have 12 cases — 11 cases, and many of them are in good shape now.”
For political veterans, the new outbreak carries uncomfortable reminders of the summer and fall of 2014, when the Ebola virus broke out in three West African nations. That epidemic rattled Americans when two missionaries were infected and transported to medical facilities in Atlanta, and again a month later when a Liberian man fell ill after arriving in Dallas.
In a series of tweets, Trump — then a private citizen months away from announcing his presidential campaign — warned against bringing the patients home.
“The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back. People that go to far away places to help out are great-but must suffer the consequences!” Trump wrote in one of 14 tweets mentioning the virus in the course of just six days.
Other Republicans criticized the Obama administration for its slow response to the outbreak, and eventually for President Obama’s decision to tap former administration official Ron Klain as its Ebola response coordinator.
“There was a lot of concern, there was a lot of fear and a sense that after five or six years in power, the administration just didn’t have a real handle on some of the threats around the world,” said Michael Steel, a top aide to then-House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) who was dispatched to North Carolina to campaign for then-state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R) in his race against then-Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.).
Months before the midterm elections, Democratic senators defending their seats suddenly faced questions about the administration’s response. Republican candidates began calling for a travel ban, in spite of warnings from global health experts that such a ban would keep medical professionals from helping stop the outbreak.
“There was some sort of political panic, fueled by the media, that the disease was a serious public health threat to Americans,” said Matt Canter, a strategist who worked at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee at the time.
Soon, Democratic senators began embracing the travel ban. Then-Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) launched an advertisement attacking his opponent, then-Rep. Tom Cotton (R), for voting to cut global health funding.
“There was a lot of coverage of the virus. There was a lot of ignorance and confusion about what it meant and what kind of threat it posed,” Steel said.
Even after the Obama administration announced it would send 3,000 troops to help fight the virus, most Americans were dissatisfied with the response. Exit polls from the 2014 midterm elections showed 52 percent of voters disapproved of the administration’s handling of the response, and nearly three-quarters of those voters cast ballots for Republicans. Pryor and Hagan lost as Republicans gained a total of nine Senate seats and 13 House seats.
The coronavirus circulating in China spreads far more easily than does the Ebola virus, though it appears to be much less lethal to otherwise healthy patients. That suggests the virus is unlikely to be brought under control any time soon, despite Trump’s optimism.
It also introduces an unpredictable variable into Trump’s reelection campaign. A booming economy has made Americans more optimistic about their personal financial state than at any time in more than a decade, a significant advantage as Trump seeks a second term. But the positive trends can reverse themselves if the Chinese economy slows down and drags global markets with it, and anxiety over a virus can dampen voter optimism.
“I think the Trump administration is very attentive to this situation,” Steel said. “The administration has gone out of their way to react very forcefully and to make sure the American people know they are acting forcefully.
For candidates like Trump and his eventual Democratic rival, there are few good options in crafting a political response to a problem they cannot control. As in 2014, the best option is to drive a different message.
“It’s important to stick with your strategy, stick with your plan and not take the bait. You want to make sure you’re having the debate you want to have, and that’s hard to do if the press is really pushing you for answers and pushing you for a message on this topic,” Canter said. “As best as possible, continue to drive a consistent narrative that you believe is best for your campaign.”
Morgan Chalfant contributed.