It happens in every presidency, the unexpected, unforeseen crisis. It not only supersedes the administration’s preplanned priorities, but it plays a significant role in determining its political fate and historical standing.
For George W. Bush it was the 9/11 attacks that Islamic terrorists launched against the Pentagon in Washington and the twin towers in New York. After brief uncertainty, Bush took firm command and rallied the nation, forging a period of national unity and winning a second term.
For Jimmy Carter, it was the seizure by Iranian militants of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Carter never could resolve the situation — perhaps a solution was beyond his control — and a dramatic rescue mission ended in abject failure. In November, so did his reelection bid.
Despite his personal shortcomings, Donald Trump has glided through three years without a major crisis, buoyed by the growing economy he inherited and the tax cut that kept it going.
But in the past month, the onset of the deadly coronavirus has exposed his lack of focus, preparedness and adeptness to cope with the unexpected, and the resulting economic damage threatens to undercut his prime political positive, a robust economy and surging stock market.
To make things worse for Trump, the Democratic presidential primaries unexpectedly produced a serious alternative to his reelection chances. Former Vice President Joe Biden promises a return to normalcy and regularity that polls and exit interviews show is appealing to Americans tired of Trump’s bluster, chaos and uncertainty.
The past 10 days have illustrated the contrast Democrats hope will enable them to win back the White House.
Less than 24 hours after Trump stumbled through a mistake-laden, misleading Oval Office speech on the pandemic, Biden outlined a series of proposed federal governmental actions in a presentation that sounded more presidential than the president. Since then, an array of governors has discussed the situation in a way that’s a reminder how political executives should perform.
Meanwhile, Trump has sent a series of mixed signals. After weeks of downplaying the virus impact and even deriding it a “hoax,” Trump contended last Tuesday, “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”
And his examples have sometimes belied his words. At a Rose Garden news conference on March 13, Trump advised Americans to avoid close contact with one another. Then, he shook hands and touched the participating officials and executives in exactly the way experts say creates the danger of passing the virus.
Under questioning, he said he might allow himself to be tested after coming in close contact with a Brazilian official who tested positive for the virus. That night, his doctor issued a statement that testing him was unnecessary, but, a day later, Trump said he had been tested and proven negative.
State governors have been left wondering what support they could expect from the federal government. And when Trump was asked if he felt any responsibility for his administration’s slow response to the need for massive testing of potential victims, he replied, “I don’t take responsibility at all,” claiming he was hamstrung by rules “from a different time.”
That’s a far cry from the confident “I alone can fix it” vow of his 2016 Republican National Convention acceptance speech. But it was unfortunately typical of Trump’s habit of refusing to admit responsibility for errors while exaggerating his alleged successes.
One day, he took credit for a dramatic stock market surge during the prior day’s news conference, neglecting to mention the coronavirus fallout has sent the Dow Jones average down 30%. The following Monday, renewed recession concerns wiped out that gain — and then some — suggesting limits to one positive White House presentation.
So far, polls show the public rates Trump’s handling of the crisis roughly on a par with his consistent overall job rating, in the low to mid 40s. But the next November’s ultimate verdict may depend on the public’s judgment of factors beyond his control, notably how deadly the coronavirus proves to be, to American lives and the economy.
That’s because the 2020 election, as with all incumbents, will be basically a referendum on his presidency. And history shows that election year economic recessions are deadly for presidents seeking reelection.
George W. Bush avoided that scenario. The 2004 economy was strong, and the damaging fallout from his decision to invade Iraq only became fully evident later. Though his victory margin over Democratic Sen. John Kerry was narrow, it was the only presidential election of the past 32 years in which the Republican candidate got the most votes.
Carter was less fortunate. While he struggled to free the hostages, the cutoff of Iranian oil following the 1979 overthrow of pro-Western Shah Mohamad Reza Pahlavi created soaring inflation and the Federal Reserve’s moves to curb it triggered an economic recession.
As with Herbert Hoover a generation earlier and George H. W. Bush 12 years later, failure to cope with election year economic woes proved too difficult for Carter to surmount. Seven-and-a-half months before Americans vote, the projected economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic poses a similar threat — and challenge — to Donald Trump.
Reach Carl P. Leubsdorf via email at: email@example.com.