President Donald Trump is facing a turning point in his bid for re-election, betting that a handful of Southern and Midwestern states can reopen their economies without triggering an even deeper public health crisis.
If it works out, Trump can claim he was right all along about quickly lifting stay-at-home restrictions that are damaging the economy. If it doesn’t and coronavirus cases spike, pollsters and political analysts say it’s Trump who will bear the blame — even after he tried to shield himself from fallout by putting governors in charge of the most critical decisions.
“It’s a gamble,” said Brad Coker, managing director of Florida-based Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy. “If they start to do this and it comes back strong — in a way that everybody really sees it as coming back strong — in states like Florida, it’s much worse than it is right now, yeah, that’s going to be a big price to pay.”
The reopening gambit will play out over the coming weeks, as Texas, Georgia, Florida, Ohio and Missouri — all with Republican governors — prepare to ease restrictions to stem the spread of the coronavirus. On Wednesday, the Trump administration said it’s trying to fast-track vaccine development, yet another high-risk move that — if it works — could pay political dividends.
Success — Americans back at work, dining in restaurants and a “packed house” at football stadiums, as he said Wednesday — would bolster his favorite case for re-election: economic growth.
That argument took a major hit on Wednesday after the Commerce Department reported that U.S. gross domestic product shrank at a 4.8% annualized pace, ending an 11-year economic expansion and signaling a recession has begun.
Trump promises a turnaround will take off in the second half of the year.
“We built the greatest economy anywhere in the world. We’re going to build it again,” he said on Tuesday.
Yet public health experts warn that some of the states’ decisions are ill-advised and risk wider spread of the disease, more American deaths and the reimposition of stay-at-home rules — all political poison for Trump’s aspirations for a second term.
“A major resurgence of cases is well within the realms of what is possible” if states lift social distancing measures too early, said Theo Vos, an epidemiologist at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.
The institute’s projections are closely watched at the White House. IHME estimates that states risk a rebound of the outbreak if they ease social distancing measures before their rate of new infections falls to one in 1 million residents. Three states that have been most aggressive about reopening — Georgia, Texas and South Carolina — are not projected to hit that mark until mid-June at the earliest.
The president has already seen his approval ratings dive as the number of coronavirus infections in the U.S. climbed past 1 million and deaths surpassed 60,000. Another surge could cement perceptions that Trump — who has agitated since March to lift social-distancing measures that have pushed more than 26.5 million people out of their jobs — cares more for the economy and his re-election than the health of American citizens.
Trump trails presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in key battleground states, including Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, recent public polls show. AnNBC News/Wall Street Journal survey taken April 13-15 showed registered voters believe Biden would do a better job of responding to the virus than Trump by a 9 percentage-point margin.
The Trump administration has begun an effort it calls “Operation Warp Speed” to hasten the development of a vaccine, seeking to cut months or even years from the process and have 300 million doses ready by January — enough for nearly every American.
The decision by some states to begin reopening reflects what they see as the growing risk to their economies if businesses remain closed. It’s a similar calculus for Trump campaign officials, who believe the election will hinge on how well the president manages the economic recovery.
“When the economy comes back, voters will know that it was Trump policies that did it,” Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign, said in a statement.
The president’s critics say some of his policies are putting Americans in a position of choosing whether to risk their health for their jobs.
On Tuesday, for example, he ordered meatpacking plants to remain open after a spate of virus outbreaks had prompted closures and threatened a severe disruption in the food-supply chain. The move sparked an outcry from unions, as Trump moved to shield meat-processing companies from liability but offered no clear assurances for worker safety.
‘Put it Out’
But on Wednesday, Trump expressed confidence in the strategy.
“We’re going to be very careful as we open,” Trump said at the White House. “If there’s a fire, we’re going to put it out.”
One of the barriers to reopening safely has been persistent shortages of testing for the virus. The U.S. was slower than other countries to develop and manufacture a test and has taken weeks to build up a robust regime that would enable businesses to better mitigate the risk of reopening.
Trump has previously said he doesn’t take responsibility for testing shortcomings. The White House now says capacity is in place after releasing a strategy on Monday to help all 50 states screen at least 2% of their residents.
“President Trump has created a pathway to safely open up our country and make sure that we get our economy going and get America back to a place where it will be even stronger than it was before,” Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, said Wednesday on Fox News.
And despite the risks, the president has repeatedly lauded the states that have moved fastest to lift restrictions.
“Many States moving to SAFELY & QUICKLY reopen!” Trump tweeted Tuesday.
In a separate tweet, the president praised Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, for a “great job” with his plan, which will allow malls, restaurants and movie theatersto open again as soon as Friday.
The president has alsotaken aim at governors, typically Democrats, in the hardest-hit states who have been reluctant to lift restrictions. He urged residents in Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia to “liberate” themselves in a series of tweets on April 17, fanning protests against the measures — a day after issuing guidelines for states to safely and slowly reopen.
‘Make-or Break’ Moment
Yet the president has appeared to acknowledge the political risks he faces. Last week, he criticized Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican and consistent political ally, saying it was “too soon” to open salons, barbershops, tattoo parlors and gyms.
“I want him to do what he thinks is right, but I disagree with him on what he’s doing,” Trump said at an April 22 press conference at the White House.
IHME’s latest projections show the outbreak worsening nationwide, and Georgia is projected to be one of the harder-hit states. Modelers estimate the state would need an additional 189 hospital beds, 16 intensive-care beds and 22 ventilators than the last projection on April 22, according to an analysis by former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb.
“Georgia is now one of the ones with a sort of finishing of the first wave that we predict is quite a bit longer than in other jurisdictions,” Vos said in an interview.
Stacey Abrams, a Democrat who ran against Kemp and is considered a possible Biden running mate, said Sunday that Trump deserves “no credit” for warning the Georgia governor about his re-opening plan.
“He actually caused this challenge by tweeting for weeks that we should liberate our economies. And when someone took him up on it, he did as he normally does, which is bend to what he thinks public opinion is,” Abrams said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
There have been more than 25,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases in Georgia and more than 1,000 people have died, according to state data.
Still, some Republicans remain optimistic about Trump’s political prospects. GOP pollster Whit Ayres said that voters largely view Trump’s handling of the virus through their pre-existing beliefs about the president and that the numbers roughly match his approval rating, which is now 43%, according to an average of polls compiled by 538.com.
“The way you handle natural disasters and major events has, at least for other politicians, been make-or-break moments for political careers,” Ayres said. “Views about Donald Trump are so baked in that you wonder if anything, even a pandemic, can change them.”
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