Is President Trump doing all he can to fight the coronavirus epidemic? Will his efforts succeed in minimizing the deaths the epidemic is likely to cause? Having no background in science or medicine, I can’t answer these questions effectively, but I can discuss the far less important issue of the possible impact the epidemic may have on presidential politics this year.
So what impact will President Trump’s response to the corona virus have on his chances for re-election? The answer depends on what impact the corona virus has on the economy. If it has no impact, it will have no impact on the President’s fate, no matter what he does. If it damages the economy, it will cause his defeat this November, no matter what he does.
President Trump is currently receiving much criticism for his initial responses to the virus, and some praise as well. His critics say he’s downplayed the threat and has not adequately prepared for its consequences. His supporters have praised his calm demeanor in reporting on his administration’s efforts, his deference to Dr. Fauci, and his travel bans.
But neither the praise nor the criticism will affect his popularity or his re-election chances. Both loathing and love for the President are now practically set in stone. Nothing he says or does can possibly win over his opponents or disillusion his supporters. Were he to personally find and distribute a cure for the coronavirus tomorrow, his opponents would criticize him for not having done so sooner. If the virus were to cause 100,000,000 million deaths, his supporters would still credit him for not losing more. In short, his actions to date have neither moved the needle on his personal popularity, nor are they likely to do so in the future.
Unless the economy tanks.
As I’ve written before—and regular readers of this column can be pardoned for thinking I’m becoming tediously repetitive, if not already there—the single greatest factor in determining the outcome of a presidential election, especially when an incumbent is seeking a second term, is the public perception of his handling of the economy. The reason is simple: The state of the economy affects more people more personally than any other policy area. What wars we fight are obviously of profound interest to those who have loved ones actually fighting them, but they’re not necessarily of interest to those who think they have no personal stake in them. But everyone is affected by inflation or unemployment. Thus, If the president commands public approval, he cannot lose. If he does not command public approval, he cannot win, no matter what other achievements he can claim. A good recent example is the case of President George H. W. Bush. In 1991 his public approval ratings were in excess of 90%, based on his expert handling of the Persian Gulf War. The next year he was defeated for re-election with the smallest percentage of the popular vote of any incumbent in political history, with the sole exception of William Howard Taft in 1912. Public disapproval of his economic management far exceeded whatever good will he had earned as a leader in foreign and military policy.
And there’s not necessarily a relationship between what a president does, and what credit or blame he elicits. Ronald Reagan earned much praise and an easy re-election victory in 1984 following the sharp decline in inflation in his first term. Yet the decline of inflation was due at least in part to the economic policies of Jimmy Carter and Paul Volcker, whom Carter had appointed to head the Federal Reserve System specifically to fight inflation. But Carter earned no credit for his successful efforts—only blame and a humiliating defeat in 1980 for not having acted sooner.
One can only hope that the actions taken by the President will effectively combat the epidemic, minimizing casualties and, as a bonus, reduce the epidemic’s harm to the economy. And this outcome should satisfy all Americans, regardless of their attitudes toward President Trump. Of course, those who support his re-election (myself included) will be pleased that his re-election chances will remain strong. But those who seek to replace him should still celebrate the end of the virus and its threat to our lives and country. And as an added bonus, they will have the survival of a prosperous and vibrant political system which grants them the inalienable right to work for their own causes as well—including, if they so desire, his defeat.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.