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For vulnerable voters, Trump's diagnosis may weaken his case for re-election

Analysis: The president has to square his assertion that he tamed the crisis with his positive test and an economy showing slower signs of recovery.
Image: Donald Trump
From a practical standpoint, Trump is at least temporarily unable to campaign — an ironic reversal of fortunes after he spent months bashing Democratic challenger Joe Biden for not holding rallies.Evan Vucci / AP

WASHINGTON — If nearly 210,000 American deaths and a gut-punched economy were not enough, one positive coronavirus test disproved, in trenchant fashion, President Donald Trump's counter-scientific hypothesis that the pandemic would just "go away."

Trump's early Friday morning announcement that he had tested positive for Covid-19 instantaneously weakened his campaign for re-election in both political and practical terms.

On the political front, he has to try to square his assertion that he had tamed the crisis with his own test result and new data showing a slowing of the nation's economic recovery. And he will face more questions about his capacity to assess risk, perhaps the most important characteristic for any presidential candidate and one that is particularly significant for him because of the emphasis he has put on positioning himself as a steward of Americans' security.

"There's nothing positive about it," conservative strategist and MSNBC political analyst Rick Tyler said of the test result. "Politically speaking, there’s no upside for him because it fundamentally undermines his central re-election message, which is: The coronavirus is under control, we’ve turned the corner and the economy is re-emergent. ... None of that is true — we haven’t turned the corner."

From a practical standpoint, Trump is at least temporarily unable to campaign — an ironic reversal of fortunes after he spent months bashing Democratic challenger Joe Biden for wearing a mask in public and refusing to hold rallies.

Now, it is Biden who is free to campaign and Trump who is essentially locked in his house.

"MAGA rallies are over," Trump donor Dan Eberhart tweeted Friday, referring to the president's revival-style "Make America Great Again" campaign events.

The events were "perhaps Trump's best backdrop for making the case that America is rounding the corner," Eberhart wrote. "How does he make his closing argument that we are safe and the economy is recovering without them?"

Biden responded to the news that Trump and first lady Melania Trump had tested positive by saying that he and his wife, Jill, will "continue to pray for the health and safety of the president and his family."

For Biden, there was no advantage in highlighting the dissonance between Trump's message to the public on the state of the coronavirus response and Trump's personal diagnosis.

"This gives Biden an excuse not to attack," Tyler said. "It also provides Biden a superb opportunity to be himself — which is gracious."

Biden is likely to continue arguing that the president has endangered the public by playing down the perils of the disease. But the new first exhibit — Trump — is making that case for him. And that returns the election, at least for now, to the frame Trump's campaign least wanted: a referendum on the president's handling of the crisis.

In a late September NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Biden held a 51 percent to 29 percent lead over Trump on the question of who was best suited to deal with the coronavirus. Those numbers are worse for Trump than his overall approval ratings.

Most of Trump's mainstream advisers and key supporters were silent about the political ramifications of the diagnosis, a more traditional sign that they do not see it as a plus for his re-election hopes.

Compounding his troubles, the Labor Department announced lower-than-expected September employment gains Friday. The economy added 661,000 nonfarm jobs, following increases of 4.8 million, 1.8 million and 1.5 million in the prior three months. While the unemployment rate dropped half a percentage point, it is at 7.9 percent — far higher than the 4.7 percent when Trump was sworn into office.

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It may be that the nation's economic status has more of an effect on voters than Trump's coronavirus test, and the trend line suggests that it would be a miracle if the president was overseeing a November employment picture better than the one he inherited on Election Day 2016.

Biden has argued that Trump is responsible for that because he prioritized re-opening commercial activity over stopping the spread of the disease, worsening both outcomes. Trump, on the other hand, contends that he deserves credit for both an economy that was growing before the pandemic hit the U.S. and for ground regained from May through now.

It's ultimately up to voters to decide whether Trump's decision-making was best for the country — and whether Biden would do better if given the presidency — but Trump's test result serves as poignant evidence that he has not been able to protect the public from the health threat.

If he can get Covid-19, despite access to the nation's best health care and its leading experts on disease, so can anyone else.