Facing Two Crises, Trump Goes AWOL
There are only two numbers from this week you need to know if you want to understand the presidential election: 1.3 million and 59,886. As Bloomberg writes, that’s the number of new applications for unemployment insurance last week and (by one estimate) the number of new coronavirus cases from Thursday. They’re both disastrous figures for the nation — and for President Donald Trump, who has no apparent plan to deal with either.
New infections hit yet another daily record on July 9, according to the New York Times. Cases are rising in 36 states plus Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Washington, DC. Hospitals are filling up in Houston, Phoenix and more. Supplies of personal protective equipment are running low. Testing, while considerably better than a few months ago, is still struggling to keep up. As a result, several states (including California, Florida and Texas) have partially reversed their reopenings and many more have paused.
As for the labor market? Despite better-than-expected numbers in April and May, the overwhelming story is that weekly job losses are at what would’ve been a record pace before 2020. As my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Smith puts it:
The U.S. is in a very odd situation. Even as the official unemployment rate falls, the health of the underlying labor market is deteriorating as the coronavirus pandemic drags on. The country is in the middle of two simultaneous downturns — a short-term seizure caused by fear of coronavirus and a longer-term slump that will look more like a traditional recession. Unfortunately, the latter is just beginning.
There’s no way to predict the direct effects of the pandemic on the election; there simply isn’t a precedent for it. But if there's one relationship that is reliable, it's that hard economic times are terrible for incumbent presidents. It’s possible that voters would give Trump a mulligan on a recession directly tied to something beyond his control. The problem is that the longer the pandemic drags on, the less likely it is that they’ll consider either the public-health disaster or the economic fallout inevitable — especially since the damage has receded in other rich nations.
And especially since Trump has so little to offer. Since mid-April, he has basically abandoned any attempt to control the virus. His only consistent message has been to ask everyone to resume normal life. He's recently been repeating the preposterous claim that the spike in cases is simply an artifact of more testing, which hardly accounts for the hospital beds filling up in state after state. Trump's task force established guidelines for reopening businesses, but the president has urged governors to ignore them; now that his focus is on getting schools to open, he's pushing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to gut their recommendations.
As for the economy, Trump seems far more willing to provide continued relief and stimulus than the “wait and see" Senate Republicans. But his specific proposals aren't particularly well thought-out or suited for the job (he really wants to restore the deductibility of business-entertainment expenses, which seems more like a long-term benefit for people in the hospitality business than a way to immediately boost the economy). And he hasn't put together a sustained push for new legislation; he's been willing to let Senator Mitch McConnell set the pace, which has meant months of delay. At any rate, as both public-health professionals and economists have been screaming since March, the economy will never be healthy as long as the virus is out of control.
The truth is that, in a crisis like this, there just isn’t a substitute for sustained, serious presidential action, and Trump has been more of a passive spectator than anything else. And while there is still theoretically time for him to rebound from his desperate standing in the election, it's hard to see how that happens if he doesn't change the way he runs his presidency.