President Donald Trump has told Americans that he's taking bold moves to fight the coronavirus crisis, but his actions and messages have been muddled by uncertainty about public health, the economy and politics.
All across the globe, regardless of the form of government or political ideology, foreign leaders are issuing edicts to shut down society to slow the spread of the deadly disease. Governors and mayors are doing the same, heeding the warnings of epidemiologists who say there's no way of telling when it will be safe for people to congregate. And most of Congress is expected to flee Washington for weeks — available to return when needed — if an emergency $2 trillion rescue bill is sent to Trump in the next few days.
But the president, the leader of the free world, is acting as if he's smarter than the rest of them — suggesting that he can save lives and salvage fortunes by encouraging America to get back to work sooner rather than later. He's even chosen a day with great symbolic but little scientific value as his target for people to congregate again: Easter Sunday, April 12.
"President Trump is balancing two huge responsibilities — to safeguard the physical and the economic health of the country," said Boris Epshteyn, a member of the Trump 2020 advisory board and former special assistant to the president. "It is vital for Americans to remain healthy and safe while it is also critical for the American economy to not be crippled by the fight against the coronavirus, which we will win."
Many of Trump's allies and critics see a commander-in-chief who is actually torn by competing instincts, advice and political pressures, which helps explain why he is delivering confusing messages to the American public while using only some of the powers available to him to fight the spread of the disease. Trump, who has seen his approval numbers rise during the crisis, will ultimately be judged by the outcomes for public health and the economy come November's election.
The Gallup polling organization concluded the boost in Trump's favorability among independents and Democrats suggests a "rally effect" in recent weeks.
"Historically, presidential job approval has increased when the nation is under threat," Jeffrey M. Jones wrote on Gallup's website. Those gains do not always last long — George H.W. Bush saw approval around the 90 percent mark during the first Iraq War before he lost re-election — and they have tended to show much smaller swings in the recent era of partisan polarization.
Health experts in the Trump administration have said that failing to slow the virus would have catastrophic consequences both in terms of deaths and in the resulting economic calamity. Until recently, Trump was listening to them enough that he said on March 16 that his focus was on "this virus problem" because "everything else is going to fall into place" once the public health crisis is dealt with.
Since Trump hasn't actually ordered anyone to stay at home or frozen economic activity, it's not clear that word from him would encourage Americans to leave their houses or force state, local and business officials to lift bans on gatherings. Moreover, some warn that the economy could be harmed even more if the president calls for the resumption of normal activities and the health crisis gets worse as a result.
On Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, followed up Trump's talk about an Easter timeline by noting that "no one is going to want to tone down things" when they see how badly New York and other cities are being overwhelmed by the disease.
"Trump needs to resist the urge to listen to economists until we have defeated the virus," said Dan Eberhart, a major Republican donor and CEO of Canary, an oilfield services company. "If Trump tries to restart the economy too soon and the pandemic continues to spread, that will be his legacy and it will be a legacy of failure."
Eberhart supports Trump and believes the president should listen to medical professionals now and economists later.
There will be plenty of time for political considerations, said Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist, who warned that efforts by partisans to turn Trump's handling of the crisis to his benefit or detriment are risky.
"The reality here is that voters are paralyzed by a crisis defined by two powerful fears: the fear of a worsening pandemic and fear of a coming depression," Kofinis said. "President Trump and Democrats should be extremely careful about trivializing either fear or trying to exploit either one for political gain." He added that few Americans care about partisan politics at the moment.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, has been countering the president in interviews from the basement of his home while political action committees that support him are attacking Trump in ads.
And Jim Messina, who ran President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign, told MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Reports" on Wednesday that Trump's various remarks over the course of the crisis lend themselves to political ads that will be "very difficult for him to rebut in the fall of this year."
No one is in a more precarious political position than the president, who wavers between appealing to a Republican base that is increasingly pushing him to put economic considerations ahead of slowing the spread of the virus and bowing to the reality that the disease is a growing threat.
When Trump is riffing in front of a microphone, he is often pitting Americans against each other along political, ideological and geographical grounds — picking winners and losers, casting blame and patting himself on the back for winning a "war" against a virus that doesn't respond nearly as much to unpredictability in strategy and tactics as his language might imply.
Behind the scenes, members of his administration are working to deliver resources to states, negotiating a rescue package with Democrats in Congress and listening closely to scientists on how to handle the public health part of the pandemic. At the same time, those efforts have been constrained by Trump's reluctance to deploy the full power of the federal government to allocate medical supplies to states and to force private companies to replenish them.
Vice President Mike Pence has hinted at the ideological underpinning of the administration's decision not to invoke the Defense Production Act to do more to manage the crisis, leaving more responsibility and accountability at the state and local level.
"It’s extremely important that the American people recognize that one of the things that makes America different is that we have a system of federalism," Pence said Sunday.
"We want states to be able to manage the unique circumstances in their states," he said.
Governors, particularly Andrew Cuomo of New York, have said that the help isn't coming fast enough from the federal government.
What may be coming too fast are the twists, turns and lurches in Trump's thinking.