WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump is increasingly sure Joe Biden will be his Democratic challenger, but coronavirus is already the more dangerous opponent – sending his campaign reeling and throwing the entire contest into uncertainty.
Just over a couple weeks ago, Trump was sitting pretty, at least by the tumultuous standards of his presidency.
The stock market was booming. Democrats were divided.
Trump’s rallies, where he whipped up crowds of around 15,000 around the country, night after night, were set to ramp up.
Today, America is unrecognisable.
The economy is predicted to be entering steep recession, markets are in freefall, and fear, rather than Trump’s gaudy brand of optimism, is in the air.
Election campaigning has also been upended, especially for Trump who has had to shelve those rallies.
Biden, meanwhile, has unexpectedly surged to the head of the Democratic nomination stakes.
And the coronavirus crisis, if anything, is helping him.
He’ll tell anyone who’ll listen that he worked on the Ebola outbreak and was instrumental in responding to the 2008 financial meltdown when he was vice-president under Barack Obama.
He claims he’s the calm, seasoned figure required now.
“The next president will have to salvage our reputation, rebuild confidence in our leadership, and mobilise our country and our allies to rapidly meet new challenges – like future pandemics.
We need a leader who will be ready on day one,” he tweeted Wednesday.
Trump declares war
Trump, by contrast, has been widely accused of bungling the initial response to the novel coronavirus.
An NPR/PBS/Marist poll released Tuesday showed around 60% of Americans have little or no trust in Trump’s statements on the crisis.
For weeks, he almost jokingly dismissed the dangers, frequently pointing out that ordinary flu kills thousands a year without provoking national emergencies.
Beyond the messaging, Trump was slammed by critics for a messy rollout of test kits and severe shortages in basic emergency equipment like respirators and surgical masks.
More recently, Trump has become embroiled in a battle over his insistence on calling the outbreak the “China virus.”
It did originate in China, but domestic critics see the name as code for the kind of race-baiting tendencies that Trump has allegedly shown in the past.
Stung by the bad press, Trump hit the reset button this week.
He announced a stunning economic rescue package said to be worth around US$1 trillion and framed the entire catastrophe as a war in which he is the general.
“A wartime president,” Trump called himself Wednesday.
“Every generation of Americans has been called to make shared sacrifices for the good of the nation,” he said, invoking World War II.
“We’re going to defeat the invisible enemy,” he said.
“It will be a complete victory.”
Recovery in time?
Flag-waving patriotism and talk of winning puts Trump back into his comfort zone.
It’s the tone that helped get him elected in 2016 and helped fill all his reelection rallies.
His closing of US borders to Europe, China, Canada and elsewhere is part of the widely shared strategy around the world of trying to stop the virus’ spread.
It also plays easily into the fortress America, or “America first,” message Trump has delivered to his base for some four years.
But what could really decide the war for the White House in November is not just how the virus is defeated, but exactly when.
Get clear in a couple months, or at least in the summer, and Trump would have time to declare victory – and hope for a quick recovery in the economy.
If he were really lucky, the sequence could theoretically create a tidal wave of goodwill for his management.
If he’s unlucky, the economic downturn could prove stubborn.
Or the virus could even come back in the autumn, before voting starts.
Trump clearly has his fingers crossed.
“It’s going to pop,” he predicted of pent-up economic activity once the virus fades.
“One day, we’ll be standing, possibly up here, and we’ll say, ‘Well, we won.'”
“As sure as you’re sitting there, we’re going to say that. And we’re going to win, and I think we’re going to win faster than people think,” he told journalists in the White House briefing room.
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