The coronavirus crisis is a double-edged sword for Trump

The pandemic may hurt his re-election chances, but it also gives him a starring role on the national stage while sidelining Biden

The Covid-19 crisis has given President Donald Trump a starring role in history's greatest reality show.

People across the globe tune in to see how he will lead the United States through the world's greatest health crisis in a century.

Will he listen to the medical experts when it comes to people's physical well-being?

A troubling sign that this may not be the case occurred at a recent virtual town hall on Fox News.

There, Dr Deborah Birx, response coordinator for the White House coronavirus task force, said that "in Singapore, they took the President's guidelines and then executed them very early because they could see China next door. And so, they saw those and they implemented those guidelines. So, very few people became infected in Singapore".

Many Singaporean friends ask:

• If the quote is fake news or

• Does she really believe that Mr Trump provided Singapore with its response plan.

It's neither.

Dr Birx's remarks are not unusual in that much of what comes from White House officials starts with praise for the US President, often forcing one into contortions.

Further, since what Singapore implemented months ago worked, she gives the President credit for it in the hope that he actually follows that plan.

US President Donald Trump at a briefing in the White House on Wednesday about the coronavirus situation. The writers say that if things worsen, Mr Trump's presidency will almost certainly come to an end. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

But not all have fallen into line.

Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has offered advice that contradicts Mr Trump's views at the White House coronavirus task force news conferences.

It has made Dr Fauci a media star, drawing vitriol from Trump supporters as well as praise from people who see him as the US' greatest medical resource.

The latter fear that if he falls out of Mr Trump's favour and disappears from public briefings, that could mean the President won't listen to the medical experts.

While we may not know where Dr Fauci is located on any given day, we do know that Mr Joe Biden - the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee - is, unfortunately, more often than not stuck at his house in Delaware, with his campaign team working from home, with no rallies to attend, no in-person fund-raisers to hold, literally and figuratively far from the action in Washington between the President and congressional leaders.

With the coronavirus bringing Democrat and Republican legislators together to come up with a package of relief measures, and working to pass further legislation needed to address the crisis, the 2020 election becomes solely a referendum on Mr Trump's leadership.

This is a double-edged sword.

People are dying from the virus. Jobless figures are at a scary record high.

Could the President have taken action sooner to prevent much of this? Many think so.

No doubt, if things worsen, Mr Trump's presidency almost certainly comes to an end.

But if things improve - whether he deserves the credit or not - a second term becomes more likely.


The financial relief package is on track to pass faster than the one in the wake of the 2007-2008 financial crash, and with much more bipartisan support this time.

The vote in the Senate was 96-0. In 2008, only three Republicans voted for that stimulus.

The Democrats leading the negotiations are Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Not Mr Biden.

Ms Pelosi and Mr Schumer are deciding what to accept and where to hold the line when it comes to the government's response.

And under the US federal system, the day-to-day action is left to the states themselves.

Governors like Mr Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat from New York state, are doing the actual work in addressing the pandemic, such as by bringing back retired healthcare workers and introducing a controversial method that would see two patients sharing a ventilator.

Right now, the parties are united. But if the crisis worsens, and as we get closer to election day in November, that may not last. Expect many more stock market gyrations and policy debates between now and then.


Mr Trump had very few significant crises during the first three years of his presidency.

And what crises he did face were often of his own making, such as his reaction to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

Other presidents have not been so lucky.

Both Mr Jimmy Carter and Mr George H. W. Bush lost their re-election bids because of crises they faced in the first term.

Mr Carter's re-election hopes were dashed when, in November 1979, 52 American diplomats and citizens were taken hostage at the US embassy in Teheran, Iran.

A rescue attempt by the US military failed, resulting in the deaths of nine US servicemen and an Iranian civilian.

That failed attempt and the continuation of the hostage crisis through the end of Mr Carter's presidency led in large part to his landslide loss to Mr Ronald Reagan in 1980.

In the later part of his presidency, Mr George H. W. Bush faced a short and painful recession.

In June 1992, unemployment peaked at 7.8 per cent, and one month later, his approval rating dropped below 30 per cent. Mr Bill Clinton capitalised on the recession and won the election in November.

How Mr Trump handles the first crisis of his presidency, the most significant any US president has faced in decades, will largely dictate the results of this year's election.

Also, as former chief of staff at the US National Transportation Safety Board Peter Goelz reminds us, there is no rule that says there will only be one crisis a year. Wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes and foreign unrest do not take a holiday because we are otherwise occupied.

How would Mr Trump handle more than one crisis at once? How would anyone? Much is yet unknown and unknowable in the run-up to the November election.


The 2020 presidential election will be a referendum on what happens over the next seven months.

With Mr Biden largely at home for the time being, Mr Trump commands the White House briefing room, surrounded by his task force.

Mr Trump's original campaign strategy was to demonise Mr Biden as old, out of touch, creepy and corrupt.

But the President's opponent is no longer Mr Joe Biden. It's Covid-19.

He can call it the "Chinese virus" or the "Wuhan virus" all he wants, but that won't matter if people are out of work in record numbers and there is a high mortality rate.

While many are right to question the President's approach so far - and even some members of his own task force appear to be doing so - the power of incumbency remains his to leverage.

Ultimately, the election will be about how voters view Mr Trump's competence in his handling of the crisis between now and when they vote.

Like the financial markets, Mr Trump's daily approval has fluctuated throughout this period. Eventually, his performance through the crisis will be baked into the equation, although it appears that his core supporters have held strong, and his opponents have seen nothing which warrants a shift in view.

Online, there is chatter of a brokered convention, with Governor Cuomo getting the nomination. For experienced government and campaign officials, this is far-fetched. But anything that takes away from the focus of helping to get Mr Biden elected is not helpful.

In normal circumstances, the entire Democratic Party would be focusing on the campaign and making Mr Trump's record front and centre. But all anyone can and should be thinking about now is how best to respond to the coronavirus. And everyone in the country wants the US to succeed.

On March 20, we wrote an article for The Straits Times titled "The Trump presidency is not over yet".

Just more than one week later, with the coronavirus pandemic getting much worse, that is even more true.

• Steven R. Okun and Thurgood Marshall Jr served in the Clinton administration as deputy general counsel at the Department of Transportation and White House Cabinet secretary respectively. Mr Okun is senior adviser for global strategic consultancy McLarty Associates and is also a governor of the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore. Mr Marshall practises law in Washington. The views are their own.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2020, with the headline The coronavirus crisis is a double-edged sword for Trump. Subscribe