U.S. President Donald Trump has abandoned his plan to restart the American economy and end federal social-distancing guidelines in less than two weeks – a scenario he was convinced would have been “beautiful,” but others, both Democratic and Republican, were adamant had disaster written all over it.
Now, we witness le grand pivot.
You could almost hear the wheels in Mr. Trump’s head turning: how could he retreat on his pledge and yet still come out ahead? The answer he settled on, in a Monday briefing: claiming his goal date of Easter Sunday (Apr. 12) was merely aspirational as he extends social distancing to at least Apr. 30 – it will invariably be longer – and then pushing his vice-president aside to become the public face of his administration’s COVID-19 response.
Before our eyes, Mr. Trump has morphed from virus denier, to a president who has adopted wartime rhetoric in an effort to rally his country behind him in its collective fight against a mortal, invisible enemy.
And so far, it’s worked out beyond most expectations.
Unable to hold his arena-sized rallies to fire up his base, Mr. Trump has turned his daily White House briefings on the COVID-19 epidemic into must-watch TV, and has even bragged on Twitter about how those briefings’ ratings rival those of The Bachelor and Monday Night Football. (One thing about the President is he can reverse previously-held positions quickly and without shame).
At first, Mr. Trump wanted nothing to do with the virus. Now that he realizes it’s not going anywhere soon, and that the only way he’s going to resuscitate the American economy is by stopping its spread, he’s decided to go all-in on his country’s response to it – at least until that no longer seems like a good strategy.
Recently, Mr. Trump flew to Norfolk, Va., to see the USNS Comfort off on its journey to Manhattan, where the naval hospital ship has now set up operations for non-COVID-19 patients in New York Harbor. The White House has already turned the President’s brief role in this event into a commercial wrought with the kind of over-the-top patriotic fervour many Americans eat up – especially Mr. Trump’s base.
And they appear to be feasting. Ever since the President started demonstrating that he’s taking the damage the disease is causing seriously (or at least more seriously), his poll numbers have gone up. In one poll, he’s jumped seven points into a statistical tie with Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden. That alone would be enough to capture Mr. Trump’s heart and imagination. Few U.S. presidents have cared more about where he stands in the polls than this one. Mr. Trump needs to feel loved.
He’s deployed old tricks, too. The President has stoked Americans’ fierce partisan divide as he blames the Obama administration for everything from hospital supply shortages to testing issues. He’s branded COVID-19 the “Chinese virus,” in a naked attempt to cast America’s eyes at the country many want to blame for it all.
But the boasts are at the core. The President appeared on Fox News this week to talk about “how much worse” the outbreak in the U.S. would have been had he not imposed travel restrictions on flights from China entering the U.S. early in the outbreak. Absent that decision, he said, “thousands and thousands” more Americans would have died from the coronavirus.
It doesn’t take a savant to see where this is going.
Administration officials are playing up the numbers reported by an Imperial College of London report that suggested more than two million Americans would lose their lives if the U.S. government did nothing to mitigate its dissemination. The latest estimates by senior American public health officials of the number of people who could die from the virus is anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000.
That is quite a gap from the worst-case scenario. And it’s a gap the President has already begun to exploit to his benefit.
"If we can hold that down, as we’re saying, to 100,000 – it’s a horrible number – maybe even less, but to 100,000, so, we have between 100,000 and 200,000, we all together have done a very good job,” he said on Monday.
Before the virus struck, America’s economy was booming, and people’s 401Ks were healthier than they’ve been in years. Many in the country may want to place their trust in Mr. Trump to get their portfolios back to where they were, before the coronavirus struck.
One can almost see an entire presidential campaign built around that great-again premise.
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