The last time a U.S. President lost re-election, the year was 1992 and the victim was George H.W. Bush. President Donald Trump is currently doing everything in his power to make sure he isn’t the first incumbent in 28 years to vacate the White House after a single, four-year term; if that means ditching the improvisation and unconventionality he wears on his lapel every day, so be it.
That Trump gave two consecutive press conferences, on 21 and 22 July, about the coronavirus now rampaging the American South and West is not surprising. You may remember this past April, when Trump and his advisers thought it would be a good idea for the President to give daily news briefings about the virus with vice president Mike Pence, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and Dr. Deborah Birx standing alongside him. The idea was to project Trump as a decisive commander-in-chief; in charge of the country’s coronavirus response. Unfortunately, the daily briefings weren’t as politically beneficial as the White House hoped. Trump’s long-winded, hour-and-a-half long briefings were largely treated as campaign rallies. After Trump (jokingly, in his own words) pontificated about how injecting disinfects into the body could treat coronavirus, the administration decided to do away with the briefings altogether.
Trump’s poll numbers, however, continued to descend into ever larger depths. There are a multitude of reasons why the United States is in such pathetic shape concerning the virus: problems over testing; the lack of personal responsibility from many Americans; the fact that the White House is often at war with its own doctors; and the incompetence of some of America’s governors. But as the number of daily cases increased exponentially (on June 14, the U.S. registered 19,129 cases; on July 21, the number was up to 65,512), the death rate spiked – and as Americans were waiting over a week for their test results, Trump’s numbers were crashing. According to an ABC News/Washington Post survey, only 38 per cent of Americans now approve of Trump’s handling of the pandemic – a 13-point drop from late March.
All of this is, of course, having political consequences. We are in an election year after all, which means Trump and his campaign team are trying to stop the bleeding. A RealClearPolitics average of national polls has Democratic presidential nominee and former vice president Joe Biden up by more than 8 points nationally. That the President is spending $18 million on advertisements in Ohio alone, a state he won in 2016 by more than 8 points, reflects how concerned his campaign is about losing the support of the very blue-collar, working-class white Americans who propelled him to victory.
Throughout the last 6 months, Trump has attempted to downplay the virus as more of a nuisance than an epidemic. But his press conferences this week have taken a notable shift in tone. Rather than dismissing Covid-19, he told Americans that it was ‘a nasty, horrible disease’ and that the situation will get noticeably worse before it gets better. He advised Americans to avoid large, indoor public spaces and to steer clear of bars like the plague. The President even gave a shout-out to the importance of wearing a mask in stopping the spread of the virus: ‘I have no problem with the masks … I view it this way: Anything that potentially can help, and that certainly can potentially help, is a good thing. I have no problem.’
‘Wear a mask, socially distance and repeatedly wash your hands,’ the President added a day later. In other words: be responsible and do your part in containing the disease. If you didn’t know any better, you might have thought that Trump turned into Dr. Fauci overnight.
One can picture Trump’s political aides and public health advisers breathing a huge sigh of relief following his latest appearances. But the question, as always, is whether a man who is deeply convinced of his own political chops – and always relishing a public fight – will continue to toe the new line. As the presidential campaign gets hotter, one can only be sceptical.
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