President Donald Trump finally has his 2020 election opponent, but he’s missing the crucial asset on which he anchored his bid for a second term: a roaring economy.
Instead, he’s confronting an economy that was once a powerhouse but now is threatening to dip into a depression as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Joe Biden’s triumph in the Democratic primary after Bernie Sanders called it quits and a hopeful sign in a downward revision of projected Covid-19 deaths are lending new political urgency to the unique and agonizing dilemma facing Trump.
How does he find the balance between keeping the economy shut — to squelch the murderous coronavirus pandemic — and reopening normal life in order to restore many millions of lost jobs and to thwart a historic economic downturn?
Trump’s conundrum is even more acute since he has already been heavily criticized for his repeated initial dismissals of the threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic and his management of the crisis. Another botched call could leave his reelection hopes in tatters.
The state of the economy is critical for any president seeking reelection. For Trump, it’s even more important, since economic management is a rare area where he has enjoyed majority support in his term.
While Trump’s decision comes with huge personal and electoral stakes, its importance far outstrips mere politics. It’s no exaggeration to say that a leader who often finds decisiveness elusive, despite his “you’re fired” catchphrase, and who often tries to offload blame when things go wrong is facing one of the most difficult life-and-death calls of any modern president.
America on Wednesday experienced another tragic day with more than 1,800 deaths reported from Covid-19. Despite hopes that the pandemic is reaching its apex soon in hotspots like New York, other regions of the country are on a slower timetable as the virus spreads, complicating any decision on an economic reboot.
At the same time, Trump is hearing horrific predictions about unemployment potentially reaching Great Depression levels above 20% and of massive cuts to growth that threaten to trigger domino crises in the financial industry and housing markets. The next snapshot of the economic disaster will become clear with a new round of data on initial unemployment claims on Thursday.
Trump cannot afford to get this one wrong — for many reasons
White House incumbents who campaign for reelection with the economy in reverse almost always lose. Trump is in a unique spot. No other American president has deliberately closed down a soaring economy in an election year. It would be a bitter irony if the economy and stock market he spent three years celebrating cannot escape the mire and dooms of a political career effectively ended by his own hand.
Given the huge pressures, the President — who just a few weeks ago predicted he could get the economy raring by Easter — was unusually circumspect at his daily briefing on Wednesday.
“I can’t tell you in terms of the date. We don’t want to go down and then start going up if we aren’t careful, so we have to be careful,” Trump said.
The President soberly promised to take counsel from “the professionals” and “the experts” ahead of any decision to step back from social distancing and stay-at-home recommendations that are now confining more than 90% of Americans.
Trump has long predicted that the economy will go back up like a “rocket” when it emerges from its suspended state. CNN reported Wednesday that aides are preparing plans for the “big bang” opening that he wants to see.
But it is uncertain whether the President will be able to find medical justification for such a swift restart or even whether he has the power to light things back up — given that stay-at-home orders and restaurant and shop closures are in the purview of various state governors.
“We can say we have to be on that downside of that slope,” the President said Wednesday, referring to the currently rising incidence of coronavirus infections, which are now approaching half a million.
“We can do it in phases, go to some areas where — you know, some areas are much less affected than others,” he said. “But it would be nice to be able to open with a big bang and open up our country, or certainly most of our country.”
Is time running short for Fauci and Birx?
The President, influenced by dark projections of coronavirus models and the advice of top public health officials Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, is committed to keeping countrywide self-distancing recommendations in place until April 30.
After that, there is going to be enormous pressure on the medical advisers — presumably from the President — but also his economic team, to permit a rapid reopening of the economy. Trump has been putting enormous stock in the idea that after two terrible weeks, the worst of the pandemic may have been passed. His reaction could be explosive if he’s told he needs to keep the nation shuttered for another month.
Trump doesn’t have time to waste. It may take many months for the economy to regain anything like its normal luster. And political science suggests that voters often solidify their choices for President months before the election, so his fate could begin to be sealed either way fairly soon.
Weeks more of economic blight could harden Biden’s arguments that Trump ignored the coronavirus threat and so made the subsequent economic shutdown longer and deeper than it needed to be.
And it could give fuel to Democratic charges that Trump lacks the leadership skills to get America out of the hole and should hand it over to Biden — a man who helped author the rebound from the Great Recession by overseeing President Barack Obama’s massive economic recovery law.
A new CNN/SSRS poll published on Wednesday suggests Trump’s exposure on the issue. Six-in-10 Americans say the economy is in poor shape — up 30 points since last month in the steepest worsening of public option on the economy in polling dating back to 1997.
In March, 54% said they approved of Trump’s handling of the economy. Now that number is 48%. It’s the first time that figure has fallen below 50% since September. Still, there is some hope for Trump, given that two-thirds of those asked believe the economy will be in good shape a year from now. The question for the President is whether the bounce-back comes soon enough.
How far and how fast?
The biggest intangible going forward is the pace of the opening.
The risk is that lifting the deep freeze too early could give the virus a chance to make a comeback. Birx made clear on Wednesday that the reason why models have been revised downward is because of the aggressive social distancing — or “what America is doing.”
Earlier this month, Birx and Fauci used models showing between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans could die from Covid-19 even with comprehensive stay-at-home efforts. In recent days, the estimate has been revised downwards to 60,000. While that total represents grave human misery — it will add fuel to Trump’s conservative media allies who warn the “kill is worse than the cure.”
“At some point, the President is going to have to look at Drs. Fauci and Birx and say, we’re opening on May 1. Give me your best guidance on protocols, but we cannot deny our people their basic freedoms any longer,” Fox News opinion host Laura Ingraham tweeted on Wednesday.
It’s likely to be a lot more complicated than that.
The US still lacks sufficient testing capabilities to accurately assess how deeply the virus has penetrated outside current hotspots.
The experience of other nations also suggests the path back to full economic health could be more of a gentle ascent than the rocket launch Trump needs before November.
China — the origin of the virus — has started to carefully open its economy. Although manufacturing has been expanding, it is well short of where it was before the crisis. Attempts to open movie theaters in some areas have been reversed.
Singapore has introduced a new lock down, after its initial victory over the virus was undercut by a second wave of infections. Both the city state and the rising super power have seen new infections by returning travelers, suggesting that it could be months before global air travel — which greases global commerce — can resume.
And ultimately, the President’s hopes of a roaring economic rebound might rest with the very American people who are being credited with making sacrifices to check the virus’ spread.
Weeks of confinement could unleash an outburst of exuberance once freedom is restored — that could give the President an October surprise polling bounce.
But the experience of South Korea, which did a good job of containing the virus and is starting to open its economy, suggests that people may be initially reticent to cram back into bars, restaurants and public transport. So millions of public service jobs — not to mention the public confidence that is vital to a sense of national well-being and prosperity — could be months from returning.
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