President Trump is entering a new phase of coronavirus management that will likely determine whether he is reelected, as he embarks on his first major post-pandemic travel, encouraging states to reopen economies shuttered by quarantines. One of the questions he faces is whether the country can return to something like normal without sacrificing the hard-fought gains against the virus, which has already killed over 63,000 people in the United States.
Only weeks ago, Trump had planned to run for a second term on a record of low unemployment and solid economic growth. Now, more than 30 million have filed jobless claims, with Trump economic adviser Kevin Hassett saying the unemployment rate could be as high as 19% — a Great Depression-like number. Trump is promising to return the economy to its former glory, saying he delivered prosperity once and can do it again.
“I think we’re going to have a great third quarter,” Trump vowed Thursday. “That’s going to be a transition. So, when I say ‘great,’ I think the transition is going to be really terrific. And we’re going to take it into the fourth, and I think we’re going to have, potentially, a great fourth quarter.” An advance estimate of third-quarter GDP numbers is scheduled to be released on Oct. 29, just days before the election.
“The next few weeks really will be key,” acknowledged a source close to the Trump campaign. The president is trailing presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden by 6.3 points nationally in the RealClearPolitics polling average, and recent surveys have shown him behind in most of the battleground states. Republicans are also starting to worry about their control of the Senate. In a massive poll conducted by Harvard, Rutgers, and Northeastern University, Trump lags behind the approval ratings of all 50 state governors on handling the coronavirus. One Ohio poll shows Trump at 43% favorable, 48% unfavorable, while Republican Gov. Mike DeWine’s numbers are 75%-12%.
Trump is tying himself closely to several governors. He has been having state chief executives over at the White House for friendly chats, including not just swing state allies such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, but also Democrats. “He’s one of the governors that’s really done a job,” Trump said of New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy during their meeting Thursday. “He’s stepped up to the plate, and he has — and he swung, and he’s just — you’re going to see the results very soon.” Murphy, elected ahead of the midterm elections that were seen as a rebuke to Trump, reciprocated: “Thank you, Mr. President. And likewise, thank you for your partnership and leadership on this. It’s meant an enormous amount in our state.”
But Trump has also sparred with governors, chiding Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp for moving too quickly on reopening and several Democrats for being too restrictive. “You have some very talented governors, frankly, and probably some that are a little bit less talented,” Trump said Wednesday. He has encouraged anti-lockdown protests in several Democratic-run states he is trying to win in November, most notably feuding with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
“Governor Whitmer still has a high approval rating among Michigan residents for her handling of this crisis,” said local Republican strategist Dennis Darnoi. “The protests meant to convey massive dissatisfaction with her handling of the crisis are nothing more than organized political theater,” he said, but “as economic anxiety increases across the state … future protests will be less about contrived grievances and more about actual concerns.”
But Trump cannot neglect the public health concerns, which run strong among senior citizens. That voting bloc has consistently backed him since 2016 but is slipping away to Biden now. Cases and death tolls need to be headed in the right direction as well as jobs and growth. Trump science advisers Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx continue to raise alarms about testing and readiness.
“Without a comprehensive strategy of testing and tracing, there is no way the economy recovers in time for Republicans to run on the economy,” said Republican strategist Rick Tyler. “While hard and expensive, providing billions with home tests to stay ahead of the virus would be orders of magnitude cheaper than our current self-induced economic coma.”
Trump is scheduled to do a town hall meeting about reopening the economy on Fox News before heading on the road. It’s a topic advisers believe he is better equipped to handle than theorizing about possible medical treatments from the briefing room podium.
“What they have to do is they have to be much more on the front end, driving the conversation, as opposed to reacting to the conversation,” said a Trump-connected GOP operative.
A second term in the White House may depend on it.