For the past few months, I’ve been working on a project called Navigating Coronavirus, which includes a daily tracking poll of public opinion on the outbreak and how Americans feel about President Trump and his handling of the pandemic, including the degree to which they blame him for its calamitous effects.
Perhaps unsurprisingly Americans have soured on President Trump’s response to coronavirus since March. He gets poor marks on handling coronavirus (just 40 percent approve in the latest data) and health care (38 percent approve), and expressing grave concerns about everything from his behavior (the top attributes Americans assign him have been “self-absorbed,” “chaotic,” and “unprepared”) to his actions (a top concern—especially relevant this past week as he’s blamed the CDC for his failures and claimed he is taking hydroxychloroquine himself—has been his willingness to overrule experts to promote dangerous, unproven medical treatments like injecting bleach or, well, taking hydroxychloroquine).
But one area of public opinion has consistently given me a lot of anxiety.
Despite an astonishing 39 million lost jobs since the crisis began, the permanent closure of 100,000 small businesses, and near–infinite examples of the Trump administration mishandling or failing to deliver desperately needed emergency aid, responsibility for the collapsing economy does not seem to be landing in Trump’s lap.
Americans remain split on Trump’s handling of the economy (-1, at 48 percent vs. 49 percent who disapprove), according to the latest Navigator tracking poll. That’s a striking contrast with his overall approval (-12) and approval of his handling of coronavirus (-16).
What’s worse is that the public continues to have relatively high confidence in Trump’s ability to manage a future recovery. Recent internal Trump campaign polling found the public trusts Trump 15 points more than Vice President Joe Biden to manage a recovery, which mirrors findings in some progressive polls.
In the most recent Navigator poll, for example, 53 percent say that, before coronavirus, the economy was generally working well for middle- and working-class Americans, while just 38 percent believe it was failing them. More alarmingly, as of April 30, a majority of Americans (52 percent) were confident in Trump’s ability to handle a post-coronavirus economic recovery, including 62 percent of blue-collar workers, 21 percent of Democrats, and nearly 20 percent of people who otherwise disapprove of the job Trump is doing as president.
Trump has already rolled out his 2020 campaign theme—“transition to greatness”—promising that, while things are bad right now, he can be trusted to restore the economy to what he sees as pre-virus highs. Nostalgia for the pre-coronavirus economy is pretty strong, so, frankly, Americans seem somewhat primed for this message.
And as Ben White recently wrote in Politico, reopening could actually boost the economy, even as it causes more deaths and infections, and Trump’s advisers are increasingly bullish on a growing economy this year. So we face the real possibility that, by the time we reach the heat of the fall presidential campaign, Trump may have accrued some real ammo for his argument.
In many ways, this remains the sole bright spot for Trump’s re-election prospects. Americans are not voting for Trump to keep them safe from coronavirus. They’re not voting for him to expand their health care. They’re not voting for him because he is a decent patriot trying to lead us through a crisis. If a persuadable swing voter casts their ballot for Trump, it is highly likely his economic brand is the reason why.
So if we want to seal the deal against Donald Trump, James Carville’s famous advice seems appropriate: it’s the economy, stupid.
Removing this last arrow from Trump’s quiver should be Democrats’ top mission in the next couple of months. If we are successful in eroding his standing on the economy, even marginally, before we get to presidential debate season, he could be left without any positive case at all for another term.
How do we do that? I would start by focusing on two things.
First, we have to constantly communicate who benefits from our economic approach. The good news is that Democrats maintain a clear and sizable advantage this front. Asked in the latest Navigator poll who benefits most from Trump’s policies responding to coronavirus’ economic impact, 56 percent say the wealthy and big corporations, while just 31 percent say working and middle class Americans. Inversely, by 21 points, Americans say Democrats’ response favors the working and middle class over those at the top (49-28 percent).
But 23 percent say they’re not sure who Democrats favor. Among Independents, it’s almost 40 percent. That’s a lot of Americans having a hard time understanding who Democrats are fighting for.
Seizing on Democratic support for the very popular HEROES Act, which Republicans continue to obstruct, is one key way to continue to define the Democratic brand. It establishes for Americans that Democrats are fighting to keep teachers, police officers and emergency responders from being laid off, expand unemployment benefits, and deliver more direct cash payments to Americans in need. In contrast, Trump and Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell are preventing these things from happening, as they simultaneously prioritize protecting big businesses from being held accountable if their workers get coronavirus after being forced back onto the job.
Second, we need to jumpstart a referendum on Trump’s handling of the coronavirus emergency economic aid.
I understand that, for Democratic members of Congress, this seems complicated. You voted for the immediate rescue package that Trump is now administering. You were acting quickly to rush desperately needed billions into the economy to try to stave off disaster. No one faults you for that.
But Trump’s distribution of the money Congress gave him has been a colossal scandal. While small businesses have been unable to access funding from the Small Business Administration, Trump has given bailouts to not one but two private jet companies owned by Trump donors. His administration gave a loan intended for small businesses to the Los Angeles Lakers. Despite Congress appropriating half a trillion dollars to be distributed to businesses to keep workers on payroll, Trump’s administration has given out basically none of it. They couldn’t even get their own website for small business loans to work.
This has all occurred as nearly 40 million Americans have lost their jobs and applied for unemployment insurance—which, I might add, Republicans already want to cut.
Not only is Trump refusing to fix these problems, he fired the independent watchdog tasked with making sure the money goes where it’s supposed to and isn’t wasted or overrun with fraud.
This is a damning economic record. Every Democrat, from Bernie Sanders to Doug Jones, can hammer it without fear of political reprisal. Seventy-three percent of Americans, according to Navigator, are seriously concerned about small business stimulus money going to big corporations that don’t need it—including a majority of Republicans (51 percent). Tying this mismanagement directly to Trump could spell ruin for confidence in his ability to manage any future recovery.
Catchphrases likely won’t work here. We can’t simply brand this a “Trump Depression” or say “it’s Trump’s fault” without talking more about why it’s his fault. There’s no easy way out here. We have to show Americans the math.
If we do, we can take Trump’s last remaining viable argument for re-election off the table and ensure that the worst president we’ve ever had is sealed to a one-term fate.
Ian Sams is senior advisor to Navigating Coronavirus, an opinion research and messaging project focused on the coronavirus response. You can sign up for its regular updates here.