Dan DePetris

Can Trump’s presidency survive coronavirus?

Can Trump's presidency survive coronavirus?
Photo by ERIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty Images
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Donald Trump is that rare specimen in US presidential history whose approval ratings have never reached the 50 per cent mark. Any other incumbent would find that fact downright frightening, a prelude to an inevitable defeat in an election year. Trump, however, had something in his back pocket that any politician could only dream of having: a strong and robust economy that added hundreds of thousands of jobs every month.

Unfortunately for the President, the key word here is 'had'. A thriving record of economic success over the last three years is now at risk of being completely undermined by a national pandemic that Trump himself didn’t take seriously until the stock markets began cratering. Which begs the question: what accomplishments can Trump run on this year as he prepares to campaign against Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee?

For Trump, there was a pre-coronavirus world and a post-coronavirus world. Before the disease began tearing apart entire communities in cities like New York and New Orleans, Trump could brag about America’s economic success and legitimately claim some credit for it. This is exactly what he did during his State of the Union address in early February, a speech that was less an update to the nation than a campaign rally in the House chamber. 'Since my election, we have created 7 million new jobs – 5 million more than government experts projected during the previous administration,' Trump told the millions of Americans watching on television. 'Since my election, United States stock markets have soared 70 per cent, adding more than $12 trillion to our Nation's wealth, transcending anything anyone believed was possible…'

Even the most rapid anti-Trump activist couldn’t deny the fact that, overall, the US economy was seeing record job numbers. The unemployment rate early this year was around the lowest in a half-century. This January, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 225,000 jobs added to the workforce, a 37 per cent increase from what economic forecasters were projecting at the time. True, wages for workers weren't rising as fast as they needed to rise (if they were rising at all) and much of the jobs influx was based on seasonal employment. But the numbers at least provided Trump with a talking point he could use to power his re-election campaign.

Coronavirus has wiped out a significant fraction of that economic success story. In the last two weeks of March, 10 million Americans filed for unemployment insurance. The Washington Post reported on April 2 that the unemployment lines have gotten so large, so quickly, that the last five years of economic growth had largely cancelled out. The Dow Jones has been bleeding points ever since coronavirus snowballed into a national epidemic, decreasing by over 20 per cent over the last three months (the Dow made a 1,627-point comeback on Monday). Economists predict the economic fallout will get worse before it gets better. Millions of additional Americans will file for unemployment between now and the end of the month; the stock market will continue to act schizophrenically; cities across the country will continue to lose billions upon billions of dollars in tourism revenue; and lawmakers will likely have to come back to Washington to pass another large economic recovery package. This is neither what Trump wanted nor needed during a pivotal re-election year.

All of which is to ask a fundamental question that is being discussed in the inner sanctum of Trump’s campaign headquarters: what does the President run on this year? Running on the economy is a non-starter because the numbers are getting bleaker by the day. Running on his foreign policy record is unlikely because there are very few—if any—accomplishments to boast about. Talking about deregulation and tax cuts will only get you so far when the country is on the precipice of an extreme recession. In the interim, Trump appears to be borrowing from George W. Bush 2004 campaign playbook and depicting himself as a war-time commander in chief who is guiding the American people through unprecedented crises and hard times. But with his administration fumbling the initial response to coronavirus and the President himself dismissing the pathogen earlier this year as no more serious than the flu, is this a strategy Trump’s campaign advisers and surrogates can seriously use over the next seven months?

Donald Trump has overcome plenty of adversity throughout his three years as President, including Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, racial violence in Charlottesville, and impeachment. Will he be able to survive coronavirus?