Trump’s biggest roadblock to reelection is COVID-19

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President Trump’s biggest obstacle to winning a second term in office is the coronavirus pandemic, which has dramatically altered the course of the presidential race and raised serious questions about his leadership.

Trump and his campaign have sought to contend with criticism by arguing that China is to blame for the global spread of the virus and that the U.S. government has done everything in its power to steer resources to states.

The president has repeatedly highlighted his decision to cut off travel from China and Europe, noting it was criticized at the time but was then followed by other countries.

Republicans believe Trump will have a compelling and optimistic story to tell at the national convention this week about the extreme measures he’s taken in pursuit of a vaccine, but there are real questions about whether the Trump administration took the virus seriously when it first arrived in the U.S., and polls reflect voter disappointment with the White House.

More than 170,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19, more than in any other country. The nation has had 5.5 million cases and counting. Beyond the terrible death toll, the pandemic has wrecked the economy and interrupted life, preventing children from going to school and curtailing everything from summer evenings at the ballpark to date night at the weekend movie blockbuster.

The federal government has struggled to get up to speed on testing. Trump has publicly battled with his own medical experts and government agencies. And his messaging about the virus has been all over the place.

A majority of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the pandemic and most voters say they trust Democratic nominee Joe Biden to lead on the matter.

“Trump looked at this through a political lens, and when you do that on a matter as serious as public health, you expose yourself to a downside you cannot control,” said former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele. “That’s where Trump finds himself now. It doesn’t matter the narrative he tries to spin or what his surrogates go out and say. There are more than 172,000 dead Americans and more than 5 million people have been infected.”

Experts say the federal government failed to recognize the potential for a pandemic when the first U.S. case was identified in January.

The Food and Drug Administration did not approve a coronavirus test until weeks later and the government has been slow to get up to speed on testing and contact tracing ever since.

Experts say social distancing, travel bans and quarantines needed to be broader and implemented earlier.

Biden and Democrats have pointed to those failures to argue that the virus hit the U.S. much harder than it should have because of Trump’s leadership.

Not all of the failures fall on Trump.

The coronavirus is new, highly contagious and still a mystery to immunologists. The virus spread quickly from Wuhan, China, with little warning or transparency from Chinese officials.

There was confusion early on, even among medical experts and the news media, about the seriousness of the virus and the effectiveness of masks.

The states have overseen their own slow and fragmented responses. The virus exposed long entrenched problems in the U.S. medical system and supply chain.

But Trump exacerbated confusion around the pandemic by publicly clashing with his own experts and only recently embracing masks.

Early on, the president spoke about how the virus would go away on its own and he talked down the seriousness of it.

Trump promoted unproven therapeutics and his rhetoric has contributed to the politicization of the virus, with Republicans less likely to wear masks or to view the virus as a serious health threat.

The sum total has been to drag Trump down in the polls, where he faces a wide gap against Biden among independents and moderate suburban voters.

The latest CNN survey found disapproval over Trump’s handling of the pandemic at a new high of 58 percent. The poll found Biden leading by 4 points in a head-to-head match-up with Trump but leading by 9 points on the coronavirus.

A recent NBC News-Wall Street Journal survey found that 53 percent of voters believe Trump did not take the coronavirus seriously from the start, up from 45 percent in April. Sixty-one percent in that poll described the U.S. response as unsuccessful.

Governors, even in hard-hit states, have better coronavirus approval ratings than Trump.

“I think any president facing a serious pandemic would see their ratings slip,” said Chris Wilson, a Republican pollster. “We’re not a particularly patient or cooperative country and unfortunately there are things that just don’t have policy solutions – like pandemics. But people have been so trained to think the president can do anything they hold him responsible.”

Republicans blame the news media for some of Trump’s polling swoon, saying there has been hysteria over red-state failures and a blackout on bad news from blue states.

But they acknowledge Trump’s rhetoric and messaging has been a problem.

“It has less to do with what he’s done and more to do with how he’s communicated, especially early on, when fairly or unfairly there was the idea that he was not taking this seriously enough,” said one Republican close to the White House. “I think he’s fixed that and is doing a much better job now that he’s restarted the coronavirus pressers.”

The evidence is only anecdotal, but Republicans have been encouraged that national polls have tightened slightly in recent weeks, coinciding with the president restarting his daily briefings on the virus.

Republicans believe Trump can continue closing the gap this week at the Republican National Convention, saying he has an opportunity to strike an optimistic tone about the U.S. emerging stronger than before and rebuilding the economy.

They believe that message will resonate in contrast to the pessimistic tone they say is coming from Democrats, who have blamed Trump directly for the mounting U.S. death toll.

“He has an opportunity to be the champion of the American spirit,” said Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign adviser. “It’s time for some aspiration, to talk about how we can’t be a nation living in fear and starving to death in our own locked homes.”

There will almost certainly not be a vaccine before Trump faces voters on Nov. 3. But some experts say the president will be able to talk about how he’s removed government barriers to fast-track therapeutics and potential vaccines.

“He won’t be able to say that we have a vaccine but he can say he’s moved mountains to expedite the search through compressed testing and by throwing money at these companies,” said Dean Clancy, a senior policy fellow for the limited government and free-market group Americans for Prosperity.

Patrick Murray, the pollster for Monmouth University, said his own polling has found Biden with only a 3-point advantage when voters are asked how much confidence they have in each candidate to handle the virus.

Still, Murray said that might be enough for Biden, given the deep polarization in the country.

“It’s a small gap, actually,” Murray said. “However, considering how deep partisan tribalism runs and the small number of persuadable voters this year, this gap may be more than enough to define the outcome.”

Tags 2020 conventions 2020 GOP convention Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Joe Biden

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