President Trump thinks immigration is his strongest issue, since it helped build his voter base and catapult him to the White House in 2016. And he still hopes to persuade voters he’ll be better than Democrat Joe Biden at rebuilding an economy ravaged by coronavirus shutdowns.
But amid the coronavirus pandemic and a severe recession, Trump’s reelection odds depend on something else, according to Greg Valliere, chief US policy strategist for AGF Investments. “I think it comes down to one issue. That’s his temperament,” Valliere says on the latest episode of the Yahoo Finance Electionomics podcast. “I think he's shown that he does not have the temperament to handle a crisis like this. I'm not a Trump bash teacher, but I have to say as a political analyst, his temperament has left a lot of questions.”
Voters seem to agree with Valliere. Shortly after declaring a national emergency on March 13, Trump’s approval ratings ticked up, and a slight majority approved of Trump’s handling of the crisis. But that has now flipped, with 46% approving and 51% disapproving of his performance in the RealClearPolitics composite of polls. Trump’s overall approval rating has now declined slightly, whereas the leaders of Canada, France, Germany and the U.K. have seen big jumps in their ratings.
Trump’s coronavirus response has been a flurry of indecision, confusion, denial and misinformation. For six weeks following the first coronavirus diagnosis in the United States, Trump insisted the outbreak was no big deal. Yet he now denies denying there was a problem. Trump has offered bad medical advice medical experts have disavowed. The low point (so far) came on April 23, when Trump suggested injecting disinfectant into the body could kill the coronavirus—without mentioning it could kill the patient, too.
Trump now fashions himself a wartime president, even though he famously said “I don’t take responsibility at all” for his administration’s slow response to the outbreak. He has also said the federal government is a “backup” and it’s really up to the states to fight the virus. If Trump is a battlefield commander, he’s staying in the rear and pushing others to the front.
The pandemic and accompanying recession have elevated Trump’s Democratic opponent, former vice president Joe Biden, who leads in national and swing state polls. “While Biden is not a house of fire,” Valliere says, “I think he exudes some competence, some calm. Importantly, he exudes empathy. And empathy is not one of Donald Trump's strong points.”
Hillary Clinton also led Trump around this time in 2016, and of course she lost. Trump could recover by November, if states manage to contain the virus and the economy recovers. Biden could also blow it with a shaky performance down the stretch.
Trump’s best reelection move, however, might be a pivot to a more commanding and reassuring leadership style, like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has won plaudits for during his daily briefings. Is Trump capable? “He's about to turn 74 in a month-and-a-half,” Valliere says. “At that age, no, I think it's going to be awfully hard to see him change the way he is.”
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: email@example.com. Encrypted communication available. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.