President Trump’s public message as the coronavirus crisis has unfolded has wobbled back and forth from “don’t worry” to “thousands will die,” but one theme has prevailed, as Trump said explicitly last month: “I don’t take responsibility.”
The president, who has never believed in admitting fault, has pursued blamelessness in the current crisis with relentlessness.
When asked about the lack of ventilators in the national stockpile, for example, he repeatedly has said state governors should have stockpiled their own. He has brushed aside questions about the elimination of high-level government positions designed to plan ahead for pandemics — including a U.S. program in China to help predict them, which Emily Baumgaertner and Jim Rainey disclosed.
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And when asked about the lack of preparation for the pandemic, he has portrayed it as an unforeseeable event, despite the ample evidence that it was not only predictable, but repeatedly predicted in government and private-sector reports, including some from his own administration.
Trump’s adamant refusal to admit fault stems not only from his own psychology, but from political reality: In the midst of an election campaign, Democrats have already made his lack of preparation a major theme.
Voters aren’t likely to blame Trump for the illness, itself — pandemics, like hurricanes, lie far beyond a president’s control. But as with natural disasters, they can hold government officials responsible for making the problem worse.
Public uncertain so far
At this point, however, the evidence is mixed on whether Democratic attacks over Trump’s handling of the crisis have had much impact.
The pandemic has clearly seized the public’s attention: The share of Americans who say they are concerned about the coronavirus has steadily risen, with 55% now saying they are “very concerned” in a new YouGov survey done for the Huffington Post. That’s up 20 percentage points in just a couple of weeks.
That poll, and other recent surveys, also show that although partisan division remains in how people perceive the threat from the virus, Americans across party lines report taking similar precautions — nearly 9 in 10 report that they are staying home as much as possible.
Surveys also show overwhelming approval of what state governments have done. In the YouGov survey, Americans approved of state stay-at-home orders by a 70-point margin, 79% to 9%.
Trump’s brief flirtation with a quick end to restrictions on commerce — and his talk of packed churches for Easter — reflected the views of some business leaders and conservative commentators, but was clearly on the wrong side of public opinion. That, plus the opposition of his health advisors, led him to quickly retreat from that idea this week.
The public remains much more sharply divided over the federal government’s response to the crisis than they are in regard to what states have done. That’s true in national surveys as well as polls done on the state level.
In Wisconsin, for example, a survey this week by Marquette Law School, the state’s most watched poll, showed overwhelming approval, 76% to 17%, of how Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, has handled the crisis. The public’s rating of Trump was far more divided, 51% to 46%.
Those relatively tepid marks for Trump’s response, however, pretty much reflect the preexisting partisan views of the president. The public’s overall feeling about Trump has mostly been a steady one: His overall approval in Wisconsin, a key swing state, has been 47% or 48% every month for the last five, the Marquette poll has found.
Hypothetical general election matchups between Trump and Joe Biden have remained within the poll’s margin of error almost every month as well, with the most recent giving Biden a nominal 48% to 45% edge.
Key issues to watch
But while public opinion of Trump doesn’t shift a lot, it’s wrong to think it can’t move at all.
Since the start of his presidency, Trump has never had a majority of Americans approving of what he’s doing, and it’s quite possible he never will. He’s also never lost the support of his base, which makes up just short of 4 in 10 American voters.
A big difference exists, however, between Trump at 42% approval nationwide, as he was last summer, and 46% or 47%, as he is now. The former would make reelection almost impossible; the current standing makes it achievable, albeit difficult.
Those shifts reflect movement among a relatively small swath of voters, but a crucial one — people who have mixed feelings about Trump. What factors might influence where they end up?
Trump’s rhetoric about being a “wartime president” and his depiction of the virus as a foreign invader that he’s held back by strict controls on the nation’s borders may sway some views. But a more important issue likely will be how effectively the administration handles the effort to put money into the hands of families and businesses to counter the blow that quarantines and shutdowns have had on the economy.
That’s why Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was keen to insist Thursday that economic relief money would start landing in Americans’ bank accounts within weeks. People know when they and their families are hurting, and they’ll judge their leaders by whether they deliver help.
Another big question may be the ability of red-state governors to handle the emergency as the coronavirus spreads to more parts of the country.
Ironically, the ability of Democratic governors such as Andrew Cuomo in New York and Gavin Newsom in California to persuade the public that the crisis is being handled appropriately may also be helping Trump to some degree, so far. Later this month, as the peak of the crisis begins to hit in states with Republican governors, including Florida, Georgia and Texas, Trump will have to hope that his allies gain as much public confidence as those frequent adversaries have done.
Economic impact deepens
The impact of shutting down large parts of the U.S. economy has begun to show up clearly in official data. Last week, a record 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment as layoffs mounted, Don Lee reported. That brought the total to 10 million in two weeks, the fastest rise in unemployment ever experienced in the United States.
Economists expect the recession to be deeper and longer, Lee wrote, as layoffs disrupt supply chains, depress investment and ripple through the economy.
The big unknowns are how quickly consumers will bounce back to spending once people are again allowed to eat in restaurants, go to the mall and resume work, and how much the government’s efforts to bolster the economy in the meantime will help.
Trump has a new media friend
Democrats complain about the friendly treatment Trump gets from Fox News, but from the White House standpoint, Fox is often too tough. That’s where OAN comes in.
As Eli Stokols wrote, Trump increasingly has turned to the small, little-known OAN network, both to generate flattering publicity for him and to put pressure on Fox to hew to the White House line.
Meantime, the coronavirus crisis has opened the way for a new fight in America’s social issues battlefield: Some red states have moved to restrict abortion, arguing that it’s not an essential medical service and that clinics should close during the current emergency. That has spurred legal fights, as Jennifer Haberkorn wrote.
The well-connected do well
The administration has largely let the private sector take the lead in providing supplies for the coronavirus fight. Trump has resisted calls for the federal government to take a more active role in deciding what gets distributed where. One result of that is that the well-connected often get first dibs, Noam Levey wrote.
Prominent hospitals, for example, are far more likely to attract donations from big companies or charities.
At the other end of the scale, rural hospitals are struggling already, and the pandemic’s impact could cause many of them to fail, Del Wilber wrote.
The virus has also started to have a noticeable impact on government workers. As Molly O’Toole wrote, illness has sidelined roughly 9,000 Homeland Security employees, especially at the TSA, the Border Patrol and ICE, an internal report shows.
The number of U.S. cases topped 200,000 at mid-week. Overseas, meanwhile, countries such as Iran and Venezuela and other U.S. foes are fighting the virus amid American sanctions that make obtaining medicine and equipment harder, Tracy Wilkinson and Nabih Bulos wrote.
Campaign hobbles along
Political operatives can’t knock on voters’ doors, so now they’re trying avatars, Janet Hook and Evan Halper wrote as they examined how both parties are scrambling to adapt politics to a pandemic age. Some of the innovations are pretty surprising.
The main pro-Trump super PAC targeted Biden in its first round of swing-state ads this week, Stokols wrote.
Trump has put Brett M. Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, Biden says he’ll nominate a black woman. A California justice is a leading candidate, David Savage wrote in this look at 43-year-old California Supreme Court Justice Leondra R. Kruger.
Most states have postponed their primaries, but Wisconsin is scheduled to hold its primary on Tuesday, as Arit John wrote. Biden has a strong lead, according to recent polling. Also on the ballot is a hotly contested race for the state Supreme Court. Lots of voters have requested mail-in ballots.
Finally, unless you’re a delegate or a journalist, you probably didn’t have the date of the Democratic convention on your calendar. That’s a good thing. It’s been changed as the party has switched from early July to mid-August. As Seema Mehta wrote, even that later date may not work, depending on the pace of the pandemic.