Corporate executives who took part in a conference call with President Donald Trump on Wednesday say they advised him that the economy cannot significantly be unfrozen until coronavirus testing is widely available. Trump didn’t like that note of caution, because there is only one test on his mind: the November election.
In the days before releasing federal guidelines for returning to normal life, the president told us to be thankful that America is doing more virus testing than any other country, of course adding that they are “the best tests in the world.” He then returned his laser focus to restoring his image as a business genius who provided prosperity and a booming stock market. That was always going to be the hallmark of his drive for a second term in the White House.
Many voters, assuming we can safely go out to cast our ballots on Nov. 3, will certainly be swayed by the condition of the economy. Yet perhaps it is time to remember that opinion polls consistently find that “health care” is the top issue in this country. Now, as every nation on Earth is threatened by a lethal virus, we really mean it. No matter what the president and former Vice President Joe Biden put into their campaign advertising, and each of them has hundreds of millions of dollars to spend in the months ahead, the topic that will overwhelm all else will be how the Trump administration handled the coronavirus.
The president decided to be a COVID-19 cheerleader, trying to spread the notion that we’re over the worst and a big national celebration is on the horizon. Remarkably, he is betting on good news in a highly unpredictable battle against “the invisible enemy.” Four years ago, a lot of his campaign was built on negatives, such as alleged dangers from immigrants here illegally. We all saw this master of marketing ride a wave of sloganeering, fear-mongering, and mud-hurling to victory in 2016. His chief concern has never been the facts. He only cares about appearances.
Trump will keep saying what he says, shifting blame for any failures onto the governors and the World Health Organization. His critics, including all the late-night TV comedians and most newspaper editorialists, will keep pointing out distortions and outright lies. Yet his supporters will keep applauding the strength and self-confidence that they perceive. On Monday, when Trump avoided answering questions about reported delays and early missteps in confronting COVID-19, liberals hailed the reporters who kept pressing him for answers. Conservatives congratulated Trump for successfully slamming a rude and dishonest White House press corps.
Like any president, Trump savors the power of incumbency that lets him set priorities and create headlines. Although some cable TV channels have stopped broadcasting his daily briefings live and in full, his version of truth in these dark days of social distancing continues to dominate hours of broadcasts watched by tens of millions stuck in their homes.
How can Biden match that, from the cocoon of his basement in Delaware? He posts online messages and does some interviews from his makeshift studio, but there isn’t much pizazz in that – certainly not compared with the verbal clashes that Trump seems to enjoy in the world’s most recognizable briefing room. The incumbent president craves attention. No doubt the Democrat vying for that job would also like to have some, but what can he do?
Biden may benefit from bad news, if our coronavirus plague unfortunately gets worse. Sheltering at home, he gets to avoid responsibility during the most severe crisis that our country has faced since World War II.
Biden cannot be blamed for a mounting death toll and the deep economic recession that apparently has begun — or can he? Don’t forget Trump’s killer instinct with its unerring aim. The president will continue to claim that his predecessors, whom he might even start calling “the Biden-Obama administration,” left him a mess with no health care supplies. Trump already links that with his claim that the U.S. military had “no ammunition” when he took office.
The failed casino mogul may win his COVID-19 gamble. The combination of his boastful bombast and trillions of dollars of fiscal stimulus could look successful, six months from now. Indeed, we all hope that the daily death toll will fade to tiny numbers. And we want the economy to recover quickly, with a return to schools, workplaces, restaurants, and rising balances in our 401k accounts.
If that is the outcome, with Trump loudly claiming credit, then it will be game, set, and match for him on Nov. 3.
Dan Raviv is author of “Comic Wars” and “Spies Against Armageddon.”