יום שלישי, 24 במרץ 2020

Trump bets that voters are as impatient as he is

The president’s political calculus on coronavirus is now clear — let others own the shutdowns.

President Donald Trump’s vow Tuesday that he would “love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” less than three weeks from now, was the clearest signal yet of the political logic he hopes to follow in a presidential campaign shadowed by global pandemic.

He is eager to own the only good thing about a crisis that has paralyzed the country and left millions of people in housebound despair: The reality that life will at some point slowly lurch back to normal.

He is determined to make other people—specifically, governors and public health officials—own everything else, including the reality that massive shutdowns will continue long after the Christian holy day on April 12.

Trump’s Monday evening briefing at the White House and his remarks this afternoon at a “virtual townhall” hosted in the Rose Garden represented a new chapter in audacity from a president who has already authored volumes on the theme.

His pledges about a return “much sooner than expected,” as he put it Monday, to a functioning economy, in which people can return to work and schools and the familiar rituals of consumer culture, is in defiance of what health experts in his own administration say will likely be necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19 and prevent hospitals from being overrun. It is in defiance, too, of closures of schools and businesses that governors in both parties have already ordered beyond April 12.

Increasingly, though, it has become clear that the gap between Trump’s optimism and impatience and the caution and gravity of other figures in the crisis is exactly the point, in political terms.

It reflects his reading of the power dynamics of this crisis. The one thing he has complete authority over is the words that come from his own mouth. Other people, especially governors, can assume the legal authority over closures and public sacrifice that flows from them.

This appraisal reflects a narrow view of presidential power, especially from someone who is often perceived as trying to expand the prerogatives of his office. No concern about federalism likely would stop a president who wanted the responsibility from leading a consistent nationwide response in concert with state and local officials, who would be hard-pressed to stand in defiance of a national plan.

But it has become clear that when it comes to coronavirus Trump does not want this responsibility. He says governors are free to navigate the situation in their state; he’s also free to second-guess any decision they make that he doesn’t like.

In the Fox News session, for example, Trump took shots at New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has pleaded with the administration for help in getting more ventilators to the state, currently the county’s epicenter of COVID-19 and nearing the limits of its capacity to help stricken patients.

He referred to unsupported allegations from former New York Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey that in 2015 Cuomo had turned down a chance to increase the state’s ventilator stockpile. “I’m not blaming him or anything else, but he shouldn’t be talking about us,” Trump told Fox’s Bill Hemmer. “He’s supposed to be buying his own ventilators.”

Trump: America is not 'built to be shutdown'

Later in the session, when Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force said New York City’s problems are exacerbated by its density, Trump interjected, “Do you blame the governor for that?” Birx didn’t answer her boss’s question.

Cumulatively, Trump’s appearances in recent days have offered an answer on the briefly in-doubt question of whether a pandemic would force alteration of Trump’s basic rally-his-partisans, blame-his-adversaries political style. The answer: no.

In a televised Oval Office speech on March 11, Trump implored: “We must put politics aside, stop the partisanship, and unify together as one nation and one family.”

Now, he has signaled that the country may be in the pandemic together—“parts of our country are very lightly affected,” he said Monday—but the response will be guided by conflicting voices. He said at that briefing if it were “up to the doctors” they would say “let’s keep it shut down” across the world “for a couple years.”

Whatever the element of political calculation, the Rose Garden appearance also made clear that Trump is also genuinely frustrated by the dictates of health experts that the more extensive the shutdown the greater the effectiveness—no matter the associated human and economic cost.

“We lose much more than that to automobile accidents,” Trump said. “We don't call up the automobile companies and say stop making cars. We have to get back to work.”

COVID-19 has so far killed under 700 people in the United States, compared to just under 39,000 auto fatalities in 2019. But disease experts say if uncontained COVID-19 could kill hundreds of thousands in the United States.

While Trump’s handling of the crisis has drawn fierce criticism from many quarters—particularly his downplaying of the severity in January and February and bogus prediction that cases would soon be “down to zero”—there is evidence that general public appraisals are more generous.

The Gallup organization Tuesday released a poll showing 49 percent job approval for Trump, tied for his highest ever.

“Trump's response to the novel coronavirus pandemic may be behind his higher overall approval rating,” Gallup said, in announcing the data. “Americans give the president generally positive reviews for his handling of the situation, with 60% approving and 38% disapproving. Ninety-four percent of Republicans, 60% of independents and 27% of Democrats approve of his response.”

The polling organization also noted that presidents typically see approval ratings rise amid crisis at home or abroad, but the gains usually prove perishable.

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