Maintaining the requisite healthy distancing, I encountered a neighbor on my walk a few days ago, and he chatted about how impressed he and his mates – a group of historically Nat voters – were with Jacinda & Co’s handling of coronavirus.
“We meet for coffee every week, and a couple of weeks ago we were baggin’ her. Now we’re sooo impressed, we might vote Labour for the first time.”
Effective leadership in a crisis does make for re-electability. Read about the ‘rally around the flag effect’ here.
Consider the case of President Trump.
Watching from afar, he has appeared – until very recently – to flounder and miss-step at every opportunity in his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, most notably minimizing its dangers and waving the green flag for getting America back to work (by Easter) … normally a political ‘must do’ in an election year. See my previous Trump post, It’s Trump’s election to lose.
But now he’s pivoted. He’s now a ‘war-time’ President determined to lead Americans through a health war, during what he now calls the “very, very painful” weeks ahead, referring to the health crisis, not the stock market.
Why this possibly exquisite timing?
The more cynical pundits – I among them – point to his finally needing to confront two sets of numbers.
One set was presented by his expert health advisors, complete with 6th-grade comprehension-level charts, that laid out the terrible health consequences (i.e., deaths, up to 250,000, despite measures taken to date, belatedly) of not acting much more firmly to ‘flatten the curve’ that all the rest of us have seen and understand.
The second set of numbers came from his political advisors. Their polling showed that Americans – watching the indisputable visuals of tent hospitals being set up in New York City’s Central Park and tractor trailers being loaded with coffins – were finally getting frightened and overwhelmingly preferred a tilt toward precautionary containment measures over economic bravado.
And one thing Trump does understand is political polling.
According to the highly respected Pew Research Center (26 March): “Less than two weeks ago, 47% said the coronavirus outbreak was a major threat to the health of the U.S. population. Today, 66% say it is major threat to the health of Americans. An even larger majority – 88% – says COVID-19 poses a major threat to the U.S. economy, up from 70% in mid-March.” And large majorities in both parties (80%+) say it is necessary to impose strict limitations on commerce, travel and entertainment in order to address the outbreak.
Trump has also watched the rising popularity ratings of US state governors who have taken much stronger precautionary measures to combat COVID-19.
Trump realises the US economy is a lost cause between now and November, and he cannot appear impotent on two fronts. And he understands the ‘rally effect’.
So now he pivots and says: “The economy is No. 2 on my list … first, I want to save a lot of lives.” And “It’s a matter of life and death, frankly,” he’s now concluded.
Astonishing as it might be to far away observers here in New Zealand, Trump’s popularity ratings have been high and stable, with respected independent surveys showing him with steady 49% approval. In fact, surveys indicate that approval of his handling the health crisis has actually improved lately – including among women and minorities, Independents and Democrats – as he has appeared more in tune with his highly-respected health advisors.
For decades, US pollsters have asked Americans ‘who do you trust most’ questions, offering choices like clergy, media, scientists, local government officials, business leaders, members of Congress and so forth. And time after time the answer has come back the same – the most trusted voice is doctors.
So, when day after day the public sees and hears doctors and other health professionals, many in hazmat gear or weeping, insist that coronavirus is a BFD, even ‘clarifying’ their President’s statements in his press conferences as he watches on, it eventually sinks in and drives public opinion.
That’s what Trump has seen emerging in the polls.
He realises that far more dangerous to his political health than Joe Biden issuing podcasts and interviews from his home studio would be Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, throwing up his arms in dismay, resigning, and charging that the President was making impossible any effective national response to coronavirus.
Dr Fauci has President Trump by his coronahairs, and Trump knows it. He cannot chuck aside these respected health professionals like he can his political staff and alleged conspirators in the ‘deep state’. The public would never stand for it.
America is now at war. ‘Hail to the Chief!’