First, Trump will blame our lack of preparedness on the former vice president, and rightly so. He will point out that during the 2009 swine flu pandemic the Obama-Biden administration depleted the Strategic National Stockpile of masks, gowns and respirators, and never replenished it. He will also point out that in 2008 the Bush administration launched an initiative to stockpile 40,000 ventilators, but that over the course of the eight years President Barack Obama and Biden were in office, they bungled the contract and failed to deliver a single one. In the debates, Trump will turn to Biden and ask: Joe, where were the ventilators? Where were the masks?
Trump will also say that when his administration was forced to rush production of critical supplies, he found that our supply chains had all moved overseas thanks to the terrible trade deals Biden supported. Trump will say that Democrats presided over the outsourcing of U.S. manufacturing capacity, leaving us dependent on communist China, and that it would have been even worse under the Obama-Biden-negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership. He will ask voters: Whom do you trust to bring manufacturing back to America? The administration that outsourced 200,000 manufacturing jobs, or the one that brought half a million back?
The pandemic has also elevated Trump’s signature issue: border security. Trump will point out that the most important step he took to slow the spread of the virus was imposing a travel ban on China in late January — a move he says Biden criticized as “fearmongering” and “hysterical xenophobia.” As late as March, he will say, Biden was slamming him for expanding it to Europe, declaring “banning all travel from Europe — or any other part of the world — will not stop” the virus. Trump will argue that if you want to control disease, you have to control your borders — and that the Democrats’ open-borders policies would have cost countless lives.
Trump will lay the blame for the virus on the Chinese regime and paint Biden as weak on China. Biden understands this and is trying to inoculate himself with ads claiming that Trump is in Beijing’s pocket. Good luck with that. Before the pandemic, Democrats were complaining Trump was starting a trade war with China. Now he’s too soft? Americans know that no president has been tougher on China — 77 percent of Americans blame the Chinese government for the spread of the virus.
Then Trump will ask: Whom do you trust to rebuild the post-pandemic economy? Before the pandemic hit, 57 percent of Americans said they were doing better economically since Trump took office — and with good reason. After years of anemic recovery under Obama and Biden, unemployment was at record lows and wages were finally rising. Trump will argue that “we built the greatest economy in the world. I’ll do it a second time.” Presidents don’t tend to win reelection during economic downturns, but Americans know that this is no ordinary recession. It is unlikely voters will blame Trump for the economic damage caused by a once-in-a-generation pathogen.
That said, the pandemic does pose real risks for Trump. He won the presidency thanks to his advantage with older voters, but polls show Biden leading with this key demographic. Seniors are most at risk from the virus and wary of Trump’s push to quickly reopen the country. It’s also not clear the president appreciates how jarring his coronavirus briefings have been. People are tuning in for leadership, information and reassurance, not to see him fighting with reporters or speculating about injecting disinfectant. The briefings have been a lost opportunity for Trump to appeal to a critical segment of the electorate — the 10 to 15 percent Americans who approve of his policies but not of him.
Trump can win reelection so long as voters see his response to the pandemic as a success. It does not matter what polls say today, but what they say in November. If the virus is contained, testing is pervasive, a therapeutic is available and the economy is beginning to rebound, voters will reward him. If not, nothing else matters.