Analysis: Trump and Covid-19

Saeed Okasha, Friday 8 May 2020

How will Americans rate US President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic in the run-up to this year’s presidential elections

Trump and Covid-19

US President Donald Trump is in a race against time to wake up from the Covid-19 nightmare before the race to the White House begins to pick up pace after the primary conventions of the Democrat and Republican Parties take place in August.

Democrat Joe Biden will most likely be selected at the Democratic Party convention to stand against the Republican Trump in the US presidential elections in November.

For Trump, the Covid-19 pandemic is a challenge in which he will need to prove his acumen in leading the country as it navigates one of its most serious crises in a century. The US economy is stumbling under a near blanket shutdown in order to contain the pandemic at a time when there is no real cure for the disease.

Douglas Schoen, who served as an adviser to former US president Bill Clinton, said that many Americans today are scared and looking for leadership. The way that Trump manages the pandemic will likely make or break his chances of re-election and perhaps even more importantly define his presidency, Schoen said.

Even more optimistic predictions believe finding a vaccine or cure for Covid-19 will not come before the winter, and the economy will likely not pick up before the first quarter of next year. This means that Trump will enter the elections after his main achievement, the improving of economic conditions in the US during his first term, has crumbled.

It is unlikely that his promise of greatly improving the economy by the beginning of next year will be enough to convince US voters to vote for him in the November elections, since this looks more like wishful thinking than a realistic possibility.

Meanwhile, Trump is facing serious challenges as most media outlets in the US have been closely examining his statements on the pandemic, pointing out that many of them may make little sense and portraying Trump as someone without rhyme or reason. One case in point was when Trump apparently suggested injecting Covid-19 patients with disinfectant.

The media has also tried to drive a wedge between Trump and his administration, for example by publishing proof that the US intelligence agencies had warned Trump about a killer virus spreading in China that could become a global pandemic. According to these sources, Trump ignored the warnings.

Even the CIA, which recently published a report denying that Covid-19 was developed in a Chinese lab, appears to have rejected accusations that China was responsible for engineering the virus, contrary to what Trump has sometimes proclaimed. This apparently destroys any foundation for Trump’s vow to make China pay compensation for the pandemic.

Another difficult situation for Trump has been his quarrels with several US state governors who have refused to ease the lockdown imposed on nearly half the country unless specifically recommended to do so by the US health authorities and World Health Organisation (WHO). Such fights, and Trump’s inability to have his way since states’ rights are guaranteed by the US Constitution, are certain to further disfigure his image as the country’s leader in difficult times.

Opinion polls published on the website show that Trump’s approval ratings have been impacted by the Covid-19 crisis and Biden has been benefiting from Trump’s performance. One poll this week gave Trump 42 per cent of the vote versus Biden’s 48.3 per cent if elections were held today.

Biden is also ahead of the incumbent in all projections in key states for the constitution of the electoral college that will go on formally to select the next president. The same poll showed that only 42.9 per cent of those polled approved of Trump’s performance in general, compared to 45.8 per cent three weeks ago.

While such polls are not indicators of what could happen at US polling stations in November, since they do not take into account fluctuations in the opinions of voters and their convictions, ignoring them could be a real threat to Trump. The upcoming elections will be taking place amidst an unprecedented crisis that has put American voters under great psychological pressure and could cause them to radically switch their views at any moment.

However, Trump still has a fighting chance of defeating Biden and the Democrats in November and preventing them from taking advantage of the Covid-19 crisis to undermine his chances of winning a second term.

He could divert attention from the minutiae of the pandemic and talk about steps his administration will take to ease the economic shutdown and stimulate the economy over the next few months, for example. He could also attack Biden personally regarding sexual harassment allegations made by a former aide that took place 27 years ago and point to the hypocrisy of the Democrats because they maligned Trump in 2016 on sexual harassment issues but are now standing behind a candidate accused of the same thing.

Trump’s campaign could also focus on reviving allegations against Biden’s son, who was a board member of a Ukrainian gas company when his father was former US president Barack Obama’s vice-president. It is rumoured that Biden senior peddled his influence with Kiev, exchanging favours for his son’s company in return for positions and services from Washington.

One thing that Trump can no longer do is divide Democrat ranks by taking advantage of the fact that Democratic senator Bernie Sanders had not officially endorsed Biden, since he did so on 13 April. Sanders had wanted to make his endorsement contingent on Biden adopting some of Sanders’s electoral platform, which the US media has described as “socialist.”

 Biden has been trying to combine two divergent goals in aiming to maintain the Democrat Party’s unity before the elections, while reassuring major stakeholders that he will preserve the foundations of American capitalism and protect it from the threat of Sanders and his supporters. Appeasing Sanders would have boosted the party’s unity but could also have unsettled various interest groups about Biden’s policies if he was influenced by Sanders’s ideas.

Upsetting Sanders and his supporters would have allowed Biden to pull in votes from Trump’s camp, but it could also have led to dividing the Democrat camp and perhaps decimating the votes of Sanders’s supporters, who might have chosen not to vote for Biden or even boycotted the elections.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  7 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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