The Coronavirus Recession and Elections

By Paolo von Schirach –

WASHINGTON – After a rather bad start, President Donald Trump is now doing a much better job in his efforts to convince America that his administration is doing all what is necessary to contain the coronavirus epidemic, while reducing its adverse impact on the US economy.

Economic measures

Some economic measures aimed at alleviating the damage and the stress to companies and workers seem appropriate. However, you can bet anything that the initial testing fiasco will be pointed out by Joe Biden and all Democrats between now and November as clear evidence of Trump’s incompetence at a time of a great national crisis.

As things will probably get worse, with more economic damage caused by the disruptions to normal activities inevitably following the coronavirus containment measures, (flights canceled, sports events, conventions and shows canceled, schools closed and more), can Trump blame the inevitable US economic recession on an uncontrollable epidemic? Will he be able to argue –convincingly– that he did all the right things, at the right time against this emergency? Will worried, if not panicky, Americans believe him?

Trump will get low grades

I doubt on Trump getting good grades on his coronavirus crisis handling. Of course the severity of the judgement will really depend on how long this epidemic will linger. Still, if we go into the November elections as the US economy is still caught in a downdraft, while the US health system is overwhelmed, or worse paralyzed by too many sick patients arriving at the same time, this is really bad news for President Trump. No matter what, at elections time, blaming the incumbent for whatever is going wrong in America is the knee-jerk reaction.

On the other hand, if the worst will soon be over, and the public will see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, then Trump may have a better chance at getting re-elected. But it will not be easy.

Not a popular President

Indeed, let’s not forget that this is not a popular President. Even while the economy was doing very well, with GDP growth at 2.5% or above, and with the lowest unemployment rate in half a century, Trump’s favorables never –I repeat never– went above 50%.

Of course, we know that this President has a large and fiercely loyal core group of strong supporters. They are and will be with him –no matter what. But, as important as these supporters are, they are not the majority of America’s voters, not even close.

Return to normalcy

If Joe Biden, (assuming here that eventually he will get the Democratic Party nomination), will be able to portray himself as the “Uniter“, the seasoned leader who can bring opposing factions together, he may get the nod not just from the Democrats but also from the millions of independents who are now seeking normalcy and a steady hand in Washington.

From this perspective, being part of the much maligned “Washington Establishment” will be a good thing for Biden. He will be able to say that he knows how to work productively with all lawmakers, irrespective of party, as well as many diverse constituencies in order to “get things done” for the American people.

In 2016 Americans opted for an outsider

In 2016 being part of the “Washington Establishment” was a bad stain. Trump emerged from literally nowhere largely on the basis of his starkly different resume. Indeed, he was not a professional politician.

And this is what millions of Americans, disappointed in the performance of the deeply entrenched political class, really liked back then. In Trump they saw the new champion who would upset the Washington self-dealing racket, (“Drain the swamp”), let fresh air in, and make the US Government finally work for the forgotten little guy.

Well, Trump’s got elected on the basis of his promises to do things very differently. But he assembled a mixed record in the execution of his unorthodox agenda. And his relatively low favorables indicate that most Americans, having tried the non politician in 2016, would seriously consider more traditional offerings in 2020.

Low favorables before this crisis

This mood shift back to the center became palpable after Biden regained his Democratic front runner status in the wake of the South Carolina Democratic Party Primary, held before the explosion of the coronavirus pandemic. And Biden’s rise has become irresistible as the country is in a panic. Overall, I believe that this health crisis is helping Biden, not Trump.

Again, remember that Trump’s leadership credentials were already questioned by many before coronavirus hit the US. The messy way things have been handled until recently did not contribute to change the critics’ minds.

The miracle would be to be able to present Trump’s coronavirus response as a Churchillian moment of heroic valor in front of an unprecedented adversity confronting America. I am sure that lots of communications specialists are already working on how to shape this story in order to provide a positive narrative. But somehow I do not believe that it is going to work.

Either way, Trump is in trouble

So, here is the thing. If this coronavirus emergency continues, and possibly gets worse between now and November, then Trump is in real trouble. If it goes away very soon, and America gets back to work, without too much damage to the economy, he is still in trouble on account of his low favorables.

Joe Biden’s moment?

America’s mood changed. No more wrecking balls, please. Many voters now seem to crave consensus builders who can deliver incremental reforms, hopefully with with some measure of bipartisan support.

Gaffe prone, a bit shop worn Joe Biden may not be the ideal champion, but as of now he is the man (almost) the entire Democratic Party is betting on. And, come November, millions of independents will probably agree.

Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Science and International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.

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