President Trump Changes His Reelection Pitch During The Coronavirus Crisis

May 6, 2020
Originally published on May 6, 2020 8:44 pm
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President Trump has recently described himself as a wartime president and as the nation's cheerleader. In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump is also trying to figure out how to get voters to rally around him with his reelection on the line. NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Donald Trump had planned to run on a booming economy. But the virus changed that and a lot more.

BRUCE MEHLMAN: This has redefined the election in just about every way. There's now a referendum on the president and how he's done with COVID.

LIASSON: That's Republican strategist Bruce Mehlman, who points out that in past crises, other incumbent presidents have won that kind of referendum handily.

MEHLMAN: When a president can be a strong and effective leader as George W. Bush was after 9/11 and Barack Obama was after Superstorm Sandy, they become unstoppable electorally.

LIASSON: But so far, that's not been the case for President Trump. His job approval ratings haven't cratered. After bumping up briefly, they're still stuck in the low-to-mid-40s, pretty much where he's been since 2016. But he is losing ground in battleground states and with key voting blocs like seniors and independent voters. Yesterday on ABC News, he was asked about the new pandemic election landscape.

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DAVID MUIR: And if November becomes a referendum on your handling of the pandemic, are you comfortable with that?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I am, and I'm not. You know, it's a very interesting thought.

LIASSON: An interesting thought and something that's forced the president to adjust - instead of running on what he calls the greatest economy in the history of the world, he now has to convince voters he has the best plan to rebuild a shattered economy.

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TRUMP: We've built the greatest economy the world has ever seen, and we're going to do it again. And it's not going to be that long.

LIASSON: One thing that COVID-19 has not changed - the president's plan to keep his base energized with a divisive us-against-them campaign. And the new fault line is the debate about how best to reopen the economy - Bruce Mehlman.

MEHLMAN: COVID is the new climate change. And you're seeing the same strong opinions being formed on the left and on the right - those who trust scientists and those who are wary of scientists. You have those who believe in collective action and collective good and those who believe in individual liberty and individual freedom.

LIASSON: Mehlman sees the pandemic falling right into the familiar culture wars that the president has stoked successfully for the last four years.

MEHLMAN: For a lot of voters, it's going to become, which side of the barricade are you on? Are you on the mask-wearing side or are you on the MAGA hat-wearing side? Do you believe in locking down the economy or do you believe the people who say to lock down the economy are the people who can work from home? There's some significant fault lines that have been long-lasting and persistent. And I think a lot of the energy among the base is going to come from the reinflaming of those.

LIASSON: And in order to reinflame his base, the president has to do what incumbent presidents have always tried to do; define and demonize his opponent early on. The Trump campaign and affiliated super PACs are already running ads like this one, tying Joe Biden to the Chinese government, the main villain in Donald Trump's coronavirus narrative.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Now more than ever, America must stop China. And to stop China, you have to stop Joe Biden.

LIASSON: The Trump campaign believes it can't lose against an opponent who it gets to define. Republican strategist Alex Conant, who was Marco Rubio's communications director in 2016, says this is one of Trump's greatest strengths.

ALEX CONANT: As somebody who ran a campaign against Trump in 2016, you know, I know firsthand how really good he is at defining the opposition - not just defining the opposition but drawing them in to tit-for-tats where Trump always seems to win.

LIASSON: Donald Trump may be the weakest incumbent in 40 years, says former DNC chair Donna Brazile. But he has a lot of advantages, including a huge financial edge and a digital presence made more important now that the pandemic has ended traditional in-person campaigning and door-knocking.

DONNA BRAZILE: I would remind Democrats that the Trump campaign has been able to build an incredible online social media platform that is second to none. They're going to be able to communicate with voters not only through the traditional means but the nontraditional means.

LIASSON: Historically, incumbent presidents usually win, except in a recession, when they usually lose. By November, says Alex Conant, even if the official lockdown orders are lifted, the virus might still have a grip on the economy and the campaign.

CONANT: At the end of the day, presidential elections aren't decided by who spends more money or who has the bigger campaign staff. They're fundamentally decided by what voters think about the direction of the economy. If the economy is effectively still shut down in the fall because of a lack of consumer confidence and a lack of business confidence, that is a real problem for the president, regardless of what his campaign does over the next six months.

LIASSON: Fundamentals matter but so do campaigns. In this case, the fundamentals include tens of thousands of Americans dead and tens of millions of Americans unemployed versus the formidable campaign of an incumbent president determined to convince voters it wasn't his fault.

Mara Liasson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.