The March boost in Donald Trump’s approval ratings, already modest compared with those of other U.S. presidents in times of crisis, has now faded.
Joe Biden, certain to be the Democratic Party’s candidate in the November election, is leading Trump both nationally and in most of the critical “battleground” states that the Democrats need to win.
It thus seems reasonable to assume, as many now do, that the coronavirus crisis has severely damaged, if not doomed, Trump’s chances of having a second term.
Trump’s major argument for re-election — the good economy — is now shattered. All of the U.S. job growth since his inauguration which Trump had been so eager to tout has evaporated.
Moreover, by any objective standard, his response to the pandemic has been criminally irresponsible. Among many other offenses:
1. He has continually lied, spread misinformation and contradicted himself, in the process confusing both the public and his own staff.
2. He has completely mismanaged the U.S. governments’ response, demoralizing and undercutting the efforts of health care and other front-line workers. He has also promoted quack medicine and encouraging price gouging in the market for masks, ventilators and other essential equipment.
3. Claiming to be a unifying “wartime” president, he continues to rant mindlessly against Democrats, the Chinese, local officials, journalists, equipment manufacturers, disloyal Republicans, the World Health Organization, his own staff and whoever else annoys him after a morning spent watching right-wing TV.
Don’t underestimate Trump
But, If the election of 2016 has taught us anything, it is never to underestimate Donald Trump. On April 1, 2020, Joe Biden had a 3-4 point lead over Trump.
That’s no signal for comfort. Four years ago, on April 1, 2016, Hillary Clinton was ahead of Trump by 12 points.
Biden is a weak candidate
Joe Biden — who was Barack Obama’s vice-president — is 77 years old and, in contrast to Trump who is just a few years younger, Biden’s age is showing.
Biden is affable and well-liked. Even Bernie Sanders, his chief rival for the Democratic presidential nomination calls him “a decent man.”
But he has little charisma, often misspeaks and is not a strong debater. He could be overwhelmed, as the more articular Hillary Clinton was, in a debate with the bullying Trump.
He represents the Democrats’ discredited centrist establishment, whose neglect of the Party’s working-class base led to Trump’s election four years ago.
Most Democratic primary election voters preferred the progressive program of Bernie Sanders, an avowed socialist, over Biden’s moderate proposals for reforms. But they voted to make Biden the Party’s nominee because he seemed to have a better chance of defeating Trump.
Despite Sanders’ pledge to support Biden, many of his disappointed followers — whose energy and enthusiasm will be critical to the Party’s success in November — remain unenthusiastic.
A father figure in times of Corona?
Biden was seen by many Democrats as a father figure who could appeal to the country’s yearning for calm, civilized leadership after four years of the loud-mouthed, egomaniac Trump.
But the pandemic may have changed that calculation. In times of crisis, people want a strong leader. Trump of course is not actually a strong leader. But he is skilled at acting like one.
And he is a master at manipulating a U.S. media that tends to treat politics as a branch of the entertainment industry.
Trump, the presidential actor
Trump knows, as the old saying goes, that one picture is worth a thousand words. He may talk nonsense, but his image — presiding over meetings, striding over the White House lawn — fills the front pages of newspapers, the nightly TV news and pervades social media. His ignorant tweets dominate the news cycles.
Trump had almost nothing to do with designing and passing the $2 trillion economic rescue package. But when it was finally passed in the Congress, he grabbed the credit.
To many Americans it appears that it is Trump himself who is sending them each a check for $1,200.
Follow the money
To further spread his re-election image, Trump has a massive war chest. On March 1, he and the Republicans had $225 million in cash. Biden and the Democratic Party had $26 million — and $6 million in unpaid bills.
Trump also commands the country’s largest TV news channel, an army of skilled and ruthless political operatives and a solid cult-like following of some 40% of the U.S. electorate.
What’s more, Trump’s social media apparatus is far ahead of the Democrats in technology. Republicans, free of the need for divisive primaries, have invested much more in expanding and testing voter data bases for the general election battle in the fall.
Certainly, the Republicans’ on-going efforts to suppress voter turnout in Democratic areas will surely go into overdrive. If anything, the coronavirus social distancing constraints will help them.
Biden’s lockdown in Corona times
Meanwhile, the pandemic has locked down Biden’s campaign, kept him at home and pushed him out of the news. Currently not holding any office, he is irrelevant.
Much of what happens on this year’s November 3 election will depend on the trajectories of the virus and the economy. With luck, the virus will have peaked by June.
But for at least months afterwards, COVID 19 will remain virulent and dangerous for the majority of people who haven’t had it and are therefore not immune.
Because it is unlikely that an effective vaccine will be available soon, the habits, if not the rules, of social distancing may linger through the Fall.
Trump’s populist maneuver
The damage in lost jobs and incomes, destroyed businesses and ruined careers has been profound. Soon, pressures to return to work will be immense. The process of gradually lifting restraints will be hugely complicated, chaotic and likely to aggravate an already tense electorate.
Trump, a natural demagogue, will present himself as champion of the people’s need to get back to work. Count on him to blame the Democrats, health experts and liberal elites for holding them back.
The Democrats’ risky bet
Many Democrats have convinced themselves that the spirit of solidarity and cooperation that the pandemic crisis has nurtured will prevail in the national psyche for some time to come. And that the public will be fed up with Trump’s greedy, self-centered individualism.
Perhaps. But the sense of community in this crisis may be more tribal than universal. Unlike the experience of war or earthquakes, in which people survive by coming together, survival in pandemics requires staying apart.
True, Zoom and other internet communication tools have reduced that isolation. But Americans, like people most everywhere, are protecting themselves by withdrawing. Many are buying more guns.
A communal or a hyper-tribal nation?
Like other nations, the United States is sealing its borders. Even within the United States, some states and localities are trying to keep fellow Americans out. All of which is emotionally and ideologically compatible with Trump’s trademark xenophobia — symbolized by his wall on the Mexican order.
The vast and well-funded Trump loyalist networks are already orchestrating attacks on Biden and Democrats for treasonously criticizing Trump — the American leader — rather than the Chinese Communists.
This is just the beginning of what is likely to be one of the most relentlessly vicious campaign in U.S. history.
It is not at all clear that Biden’s avuncular let’s-all-get-along style is a match for Trump’s fraudulent message and the well-oiled right-wing propaganda machine that will deliver it.
The art of beating Trump
Don’t get me wrong. I believe that Donald Trump can be beaten in November.
But if Democrats are not to repeat the debacle of 2016, they are going to have to be quicker to adjust to the rapidly changing reality.
The Democrats’ chances against Trump has always rested on getting a big voter turnout, especially in the urban areas, which have been hardest hit by COVID 19.
To achieve it, the Democrats would normally be organizing to deploy hundreds of thousands of volunteers to ring doorbells, make phone calls, distribute leaflets, organize rallies and all of the other many tasks of voter mobilization. How much of this they will be able to do is, to say the least, in doubt.
With face-to-face campaigning limited they must expand their technical capacity for targeted social media and other forms of virtual campaigning, an area where they are far behind the Republicans.
Time is not on the Democrats’ side, so they must act quickly.
First, unify the Democratic Party
Both wings of the party need to join in a “popular front” against today’s version of the fascist threat.
It will be up to Joe Biden to make initial concessions. “I hear you,” he has said to Sanders’ voters demanding progressive change.
But they remember all too well that this is what he and Obama said to them in 2008. And that, once elected, they let Wall Street guide their most important policy decisions.
To gain trust and enthusiasm, Biden needs to convince activists on the resurgent Left that he will run a much more progressive government than he and Obama did.
For their part, Sanders’ activists have to swallow their disappointment. Biden will not bring Bernie’s revolution. But he will not crush it — support for Sanders’ on the center left is too strong. And a Biden presidency will give the American Left more room to expand it further.
But a reelected Trump — unconstrained by the Constitution, the Congress or the courts — could set it back by fifty years.
Jobs and healthcare
Unemployment is at Depression levels, productive businesses have been decimated, and the U.S. healthcare system is collapsing.
American voters will primarily want to know how to get a job and how to get healthcare. Especially desperate will be those at the bottom who will have been the most devastated.
Fortunately, Democrats already have a framework for responding in the short term and providing a practical vision of how to build a more just and sustainable society.
For starters, there are the proposals for massive job-creating investment in sustainable infrastructure developed under the umbrella of the Green New Deal.
And thanks to the debate over Sanders’ proposal for medicare-for-all, there is finally a clear path to a universal health insurance.
Biden can choose different labels, but his intentions — including those concerning the role of big money in his administration — have to be clear and convincing.
No more Mr. Nice Guy
Third, an effective campaign against Trump will require Biden to move out of his comfort zone. The people are angry. Once again, Trump will try to turn that anger against the Democrats by accusing them of preventing him from rebuilding the economy.
Biden cannot beat this with a bland, let’s all work together theme. He must strike back hard. Trump’s outrageous behavior has numbed many voters. They need to be forcefully reminded of the lies, incompetence and corruption that has made him unfit to lead what will be a long recovery.
Biden needs to convince voters that he not only has a plan but has the strength of character to do what he says he will do.
Rethinking America’s ways and means
By now, it should be obvious to all but the most ideologically blind that recovering from this disaster and defending against the next one will require an expansive U.S. civilian government with the power and authority to plan for the future.
Donald Trump and the Republicans have now embraced a massive government welfare program to prevent economic collapse. This give the Democrats a grand political opportunity to break the grip of the anti-government ideology that has intimidated them ever since the Ronald Reagan years.
And it should free them to make the election a debate over who the public can trust to manage the economic and social recovery competently and in the interest of the majority of its citizens.
If the Democrats can do that, they can win. If they can’t or won’t, the next four years for the United States, and the world, will get worse, far worse.
Biden’s pitch is to offer the US a father figure to appeal to the country’s yearning for calm, civilized leadership after four years of Trump.
Trump will present himself as champion of the American people’s need to get back to work – and blame Democrats, health experts and liberal elites for holding them back.
The sense of community in corona times may be more tribal than universal. During a war people survive by coming together, during a pandemic by staying apart.
Biden needs to convince the resurgent left of the Democratic Party that he will run a more progressive government than he and Obama did.
Trump can be beaten in November. But timing is not on the Democrats’ side. Their chances against Trump rest on getting a big voter turnout.
Achieving big voter turnout -- especially in the urban areas which have been hardest hit by COVID 19 -- will be hard for the Democrats.