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Trump gains ground, but is he winning?

(Los Angeles Times)

Amid the growing coronavirus crisis, President Trump‘s standing with voters has risen. You’d have to go back to the first two months of his tenure to find less-bad ratings for the president.

For the White House, that’s good news. But is less-bad really good? And what does Trump’s upward move in polls tell us about the ultimate test — the November election?

Let’s take a look at the evidence and examine the president’s shifting positions on how to deal with a growing pandemic.

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Is he winning?

Like many things with Trump, the recent upward move in his standing with the public poses the question of the glass half-full or half-empty.

His current rating sits at 46% of the public approving and 49.5% disapproving of his job performance, according to the latest average of polls done by the FiveThirtyEight website. That marks the first time disapproval of his work has ticked below 50%, if only by a fraction, since Day 55 of Trump’s stormy presidency. That 46% approval rating marks a record high for him.

Many Democrats view those rising numbers as an outrage. Trump should be pilloried, not praised, for his response to the coronavirus pandemic, they say. Partisans have reacted with a mix of anger, despair and a certain amount of blaming the media.

Trump’s improved standing mostly doesn’t involve them — in Gallup’s latest numbers, for example, only one in eight Democrats approved of Trump’s work as president — continuing the stark partisan divide that has served as a hallmark of his presidency.

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But even among Democrats, Trump’s number has ticked up slightly: That Gallup approval figure, for example, was up six points compared with earlier this month.

The shift reflects the well documented desire of people to rally around the leader in a time of crisis. When times grow bleak, people want to believe the person in charge is doing the right thing; the alternative is scary. National leaders almost always enjoy rising fortunes during the early stages of wars, natural disasters and the like.

What’s striking for Trump is not that his standing has improved, but how limited the improvement has been. Look at some international comparisons from figures compiled by the polling and media firm Morning Consult:

While Trump’s standing has risen five points, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who announced Friday that he has tested positive for the virus, has seen his net approval rise 30 points since the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is up 20 points. Even President Emmanuel Macron in France, who remains deeply unpopular, has seen his standing rise 13 points.

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Or consider the experiences of other presidents who have dealt with major crises: As Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Poll notes, President George W. Bush enjoyed a jump of nearly 30 points in his standing after the 9/11 attacks. Even President Carter, now remembered for his defeat after a single term, got a 25-point lift immediately after U.S. diplomats were taken hostage in Iran.

The movement in Trump’s numbers, Murray notes, is “microscopic in polling terms” — just on the edge of what a poll with a typical margin of error can detect. Trying to over-analyze it or figure out which subgroups among voters are moving is almost surely a fool’s errand.

What does that mean for November? Pandemic or no, expect a close fight.

As I’ve written before, Trump didn’t cause the nation’s deep partisan divide, he’s a symptom of it.

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A profound demographic shift has pitted an older, mostly white, Christian population against a rising tide of change in race, ethnicity and values. Trump’s supporters believe that change threatens their way of life. His opponents see him as a threat to all they hold dear.

Compared to that raging battle, coronavirus is just a bad cold.

Partisanship shapes perceptions — even of illness

The way the coronavirus has spread so far in the U.S. has tended to reinforce existing partisan lines.

Because the virus started in China and entered the U.S. through foreign travel, its initial impact has mostly hit coastal urban areas that have a lot of international visitors — New York, above all, but also Seattle, Silicon Valley and Los Angeles. Those areas happen to be heavily Democratic and viewed with suspicion by many Republicans.

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So it’s no surprise to see that partisanship continues to shape views of the disease and its impact. In polling by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, for example, 78% of Democrats see the virus as a major threat to public health, compared with 52% of Republicans.

That partisan gap in how people view the threat has driven the debate about how quickly restrictions on daily life should be lifted.

Two powerful dynamics drive that debate, one a difference of day-to-day experience, the other of worldview.

Those who don’t see the virus as a big threat where they live naturally don’t see the point in closing down tens of thousands of businesses and throwing millions of people out of work. Those who see illness throughout their communities more naturally accept calls to shut down workplaces, schools and public gatherings.

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Beyond that lies a fundamental clash of values that has pervaded the debate over healthcare for most of the past two decades: How much should healthier, better-off members of society pay to protect those who are sicker or more at risk?

The Affordable Care Act, like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, reflected Democrats’ belief that risk — especially the risks of illness and old age — should be socialized. Obamacare raised the cost of insurance for the young and healthy somewhat to ensure that the poor and those with preexisting medical conditions could get coverage.

Republicans have strongly resisted not just the specific legislation, but the idea behind it. To prevent government from growing too large and constraining liberty too much, individuals should bear their own risk as much as possible, they argue. Private charity, not government, should provide the first line of defense for those in need.

In the current debate, that translates into less tolerance for sweeping restrictions on daily life that are meant to shield the relative few who are at highest risk.

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Currently, with the outbreak centered mostly in Democratic territory, those two dynamics reinforce each other. As the virus spreads from the coasts into more Republican territory — as it almost surely will — self-interest and ideology may come more into conflict. What impact that will have on public opinion remains highly uncertain.

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Massive layoffs hit the economy

This first wave of layoffs — more than 3 million — from the coronavirus shutdown showed up in this week’s economic statistics, the opening round of a huge disruption that, as Don Lee wrote, could drive unemployment into double digits by next month.

Congress and the administration hope to limit the economic damage by pouring trillions of dollars into the economy. The House is expected to give final approval today to the economic rescue package, which totals roughly $2 trillion. The Senate passed the measure Tuesday, as Sarah Wire wrote. Her article details what the bill includes.

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As Lee wrote, the legislation is designed in part to give small companies a big incentive to furlough workers, but not lay them off. That way, when economic activity resumes in full, businesses can quickly get back to work without having to hire a whole new labor force, and workers won’t lose their benefits in the interim.

No one knows for sure if those incentives will work.

Who will receive relief in the massive package? Jennifer Haberkorn wrote that there will be aid for just about everyone, including several California interests. Here’s a look at who will get a government check and some other outstanding questions.

And, of course, it wouldn’t be a major piece of legislation without some special interest boondoggles, like a special break for sunscreen. Anna Phillips, Kim Christensen and Adam Elmahrek had this initial look at the special-interest deals in the bill. Expect more to come.

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That benefit for sunscreen helps a company in Kentucky. Otherwise, however, the legislative process was a bruising one for the state’s senior senator, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He was largely sidelined in the final days of negotiations, Wire wrote.

McConnell laid out a GOP plan, only to be undercut by Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin‘s negotiations with Senate Democratic Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York. It was another lesson for McConnell in the risk of getting ahead of Trump on a policy issue.

Trump’s halting response

As Chris Megerian wrote, Trump has said he wants to get businesses reopened, but he’s given himself lots of wiggle room about when and how. Initially he said he wanted to lift restrictions as soon as March 30. Then he said Easter (April 12). Now the administration’s position is that they will, at some point in April, try to come up with a ranking of counties at high risk, medium risk and low risk, with appropriate restrictions for each.

The administration has also, so far, not used wartime powers to direct scarce medical supplies to the places of greatest need, as Lee and Haberkorn wrote.

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On Tuesday, for example, Peter Gaynor, head of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, announced a plan to have the government use its authority under the Defense Production Act to order the manufacture of some 60,000 coronavirus test kits. Later that day, FEMA reversed course, apparently under orders from the White House, which said there was no need to use the law.

Business leaders, represented by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have opposed use of the law. That has left states to fight it out in the marketplace for what they need.

Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, has become one of the most recognizable faces of the crisis. As Tracy Wilkinson writes, Birx is a renowned AIDS researcher and former Army colonel whose supporters say she has brought a cool head and credibility to the administration’s message.

Critics say Birx has increasingly allowed Trump’s desire to paint a rosy picture to muddle what she says.

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The crisis has also raised the visibility of governors, as Seema Mehta and Melanie Mason wrote. New York’s Andrew Cuomo and California’s Gavin Newsom have both stepped up.

Trump, as always, has tended to oversell his administration’s accomplishments. Megerian, Noah Bierman and Eli Stokols looked at Trump’s repeated brags about his China travel ban. Health experts say it had little effect on the spread of the illness.

The Democratic campaign continues — sort of

Joe Biden wants to bring young voters to his campaign. Melissa Gomez talked to a number of young voters to ask what they hope to hear.

And Mark Z. Barabak answers the questions that many readers have been asking: Is the Democratic presidential contest over? (More or less, yes). Will the November election be canceled? (Almost certainly not).

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On any other week ...

The U.S. hasn’t brought criminal charges against a foreign head of state since Manuel Noriega of Panama in the early 1980s. So the move to indict Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on drug trafficking charges was a major step, as Tracy Wilkinson and Del Quentin Wilber wrote. In another news environment, the indictment would probably have dominated the headlines. This week, it was nearly drowned out by the all-consuming focus on the pandemic.

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