The Memo: Trump fights for second term amid the new abnormal

The United States is not getting back to normal anytime soon — and the impact on the 2020 presidential election will be profound.

In the early days of the coronavirus crisis, a disoriented nation took some solace in the idea that the massive disruption might at least be short-lived.

This looks implausible now, even as many states move toward reopening their economies.

The death toll from the virus has already surpassed 75,000 in the United States, according to the Covid Tracking Project.

The unemployment rate in April soared to 14.7 percent — its highest since the Great Depression — having been at 3.5 percent just two months earlier.

New unemployment claims in the past two months total an eye-popping 33 million. 

Opinion polls show people remain deeply wary of returning to daily activities. A huge, robust economy has been transformed by a sudden collapse in consumer demand. There is no reason to think the demand will come back full-throttle soon.

Trump and his allies have claimed to see blazing lights at the end of a short tunnel. But critics say that is a mirage.

Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, told The Hill that he thought it could be the middle of the decade before the U.S. economy got back to its pre-virus vigor.

“The economy was a tailwind behind Trump’s reelection before the virus,” Zandi said. “It is now a headwind — I would say a gale-force headwind. It is going to be hard to him to overcome.”

Trump and his allies seem to be beginning to temper expectations.

The president’s son-in-law and advisor Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerCourt opens door to annexing the West Bank — and the consequences could be disastrous The crude and callous coronavirus calculation of Chris Christie and Donald Trump Ivanka Trump’s personal assistant tests positive for coronavirus MORE received some blowback for predicting in an interview with Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” last month that the nation would be “really rocking again” by July. Vice President Pence’s comment on Geraldo Rivera’s radio show that “by Memorial Day weekend we will largely have this coronavirus epidemic behind us” met with a similar reception. 

Trump himself has begun talking about a “transition to greatness” and has predicted that there will be a “phenomenal” economy next year.

Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinOn The Money: McConnell brushes off fifth coronavirus bill as Democrats prepare massive plan | Coronavirus cases expanding in states preparing to reopen | Mnuchin: States can borrow to cover revenue lost to coronavirus The 8 key provisions expected in Democrats’ next COVID-19 bill Mnuchin: States can borrow to cover revenue lost to coronavirus MORE told “Fox News Sunday” over the weekend that the administration is “focused on rebuilding this economy. We’ll have a better third quarter, we’ll have a better fourth quarter and next year is going to be a great year.”

The belief that there are better days to come will be central to Trump’s reelection campaign. But the bid for a second term will now be fought on a vastly different landscape from the one envisioned at the start of the year.

Republicans and Democrats alike had assumed that a then-robust economy would be Trump’s strongest asset in November. Instead, the president will be seeking to persuade the nation that a grim economic situation could be even worse without him — or that he is better placed than his probable Democrat opponent, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenDemocrats to adopt rules for limited or virtual convention Trump to visit Pennsylvania medical equipment distributor on Thursday Trump campaign, RNC raise .7 million in April, have 5 million on hand MORE, to restore America’s fortunes.

Trump does have some assets — not least the fact that he has consistently got better marks from voters on the economy than on almost every other issue. 

New polling on that topic will be watched intensely by both parties, but the coronavirus crisis does not appear to have instantly vaporized Trump’s strength.

An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll conducted late last month indicated that Trump’s handling of the economy still won the approval of 50 percent of adults, and the disapproval of 48 percent.

Republicans don’t deny that the virus has come as a blow to Trump’s electoral hopes but they insist all is not yet lost — especially if he can use his campaign war-chest to make the argument that Biden is an unacceptable alternative.

The economic hit “has eroded Trump’s incumbent advantage,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. But O’Connell added that the president “wants people to think about who would you rather have to rebuild a great economy: Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump to visit Pennsylvania medical equipment distributor on Thursday Trump camp outraged over Jezebel article calling for Stephen Miller to get coronavirus McConnell: Obama ‘should have kept his mouth shut’ on Trump’s coronavirus response MORE or Joe Biden?”

In this telling, voters will associate Trump with the strong economy of the past three years and give him some leeway now because of the extraordinary nature of the coronavirus.

Democrats, naturally, see it very differently. But they are bracing for a fierce and dirty campaign. With no real card to play on the economy, they are expecting Trump and his allies to turn all their fire on Biden.

“He doesn’t have any choice. What is Trump’s argument?” asked Democratic strategist Robert Shrum. “When he says he did a brilliant job on the coronavirus, maybe — maybe! — he can get 41 or 42 percent of the country to agree with him, and that’s not enough. 

“He can’t say we have a fabulous economy. And if he says it is all going to get better next year — well, people don’t vote next year.”

Zandi, the economist, noted that there were various scenarios under which Trump might yet win reelection. But public confidence in the economy won’t be one of then, he said.

“Right now, I think people are shell-shocked,” he said. “By Election Day, with a little bit of luck, they might just feel uneasy. But no-one is going to feel good about the economy — or the virus — on Election Day.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.


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