An interview with President Trump: Why he’s confident in reelection and reopening

President Trump speaks during a campaign event in Sanford, Fla., on Monday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Three weeks before Election Day, President Trump is trailing in the polls, but he remains confident of victory. “We have tremendous enthusiasm,” he says in an interview. “They only have negative enthusiasm. … Negative enthusiasm doesn’t win races. Positive enthusiasm, meaning they like somebody” is how elections are won.

Speaking with me and my American Enterprise Institute colleague Danielle Pletka for our podcast, he cites a Fox News poll showing that 49 percent of Americans think their neighbors are supporting him (“These people know their neighbors,” he says) and a Hill-HarrisX poll that many Americans think others lie to pollsters when asked about their voting preferences, as evidence that the polls are wrong.

Trump has just returned to the campaign trail after contracting covid-19. I asked how getting covid-19 affected him and his outlook on the novel coronavirus. “You know, I’ve lost five friends,” he says, “some very close to me, and they were gone very quickly. And now, when I think of what I went through, I think that we would have saved those people. You know, we’ve had a tremendous increase in really great drugs. And whether it’s Regeneron or the Eli Lily version of a similar drug, the antibody drugs. So, we’ve done a lot of great work in a short period of time and FDA has been terrific.” Trump has promised that every American will have free access to the same drugs and therapeutics he got.

Trump has been criticized for pushing too hard to end the lockdowns and reopen the economy. But just this week, David Nabarro, a doctor and special envoy on covid-19 for the World Health Organization, stated that “we in the World Health Organization do not advocate lockdowns as the primary means of control of this virus.” Nabarro noted the devastation lockdowns have wreaked around the world, especially for the poor: “It seems that we may well have a doubling of world poverty by next year. We may well have at least a doubling of child malnutrition.”

The president was way ahead on the dangers of lockdowns, so he would be right to feel vindicated. “But you look at depression, you look at drugs, you look at alcoholism, you look at all horrible things that were taking place with these — people are just locked in their homes, their apartments, they couldn’t leave. And it’s a terrible thing. And I came up — I think it was me — the cure can’t be worse than the problem itself.”

We discussed the new Gallup poll that finds 56 percent of Americans say they are better off now than they were four years ago — a stunning number considering that we are in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, triggered by the worst pandemic since 1918 and followed by the worst racial unrest since the 1960s. In 2012, when Barack Obama won reelection, only 45 percent of Americans said they were better off; in 2004, when George W. Bush won a second term, only 47 percent said they were better off; even during the 1984 reelection campaign of Ronald Reagan — the man who coined the phrase “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” — only 44 percent answered yes.

So, with 56 percent saying they are better off, Trump should be cruising to reelection. Yet, according to the RealClearPolitics average, only 42.2 percent of voters say they plan to vote for the president. I asked him why so many voters approve of his policies but not of him, and what he can do to win them over in the next three weeks. “Look, all I can do is create the greatest economy ever and we’re doing that,” he says. “We’re doing it at a level that people are shocked. Because, again, I say we’re rounding the turn. … I think people are going to want law and order. I think they’re going to want a great economy.”

Yes, they do. But swing voters also want their president to be presidential — and that is not what many of them felt they saw in the first debate. A New York Times/Siena College survey of voters in Florida and Pennsylvania found that 65 percent disapproved of the president’s debate performance — including one-third of his supporters. The president needs to turn those impressions around. He needs to spend the next three weeks explaining to Americans who approve of his policies but not of him why they should vote in their own self-interest and give him a second term.

Biden is making a play for those voters. He’s been using Trump’s language on the economy, talking about buying and building American, and portraying himself as a moderate who is pushing back on the radical elements of his party. His argument is: You can have all that you like about Trump without all that you dislike.

Trump needs to remind them: If you are better off now than you were four years ago, don’t forget who was in office four years ago. It was the Obama-Biden administration. Do you want to keep that recovery going or risk it all on the guy who helped preside over the slowest recovery in American history?

The president believes the economic recovery will help persuade these voters. “Look, I built the economy once and now I’m building it a second time,” he says. “It’s going to be even better than it was last year. … We’re going to set new records, we’re setting new jobs records. 11.4 million in the last four and a half months. We’re setting new economic record, retail sales, housing. Take a look at what’s going on. It’s amazing. And the good news, I guess, I hope, is that your third quarter numbers are going to be released about two or three days before the election. … I think you’re going to have numbers are going to be record setting numbers.”

Americans already trust him over Biden on the economy. What Trump needs to do is convince them that the next four years will be different than the last — that he can end the rancor and unite the country. “If we didn’t have covid come along, we would have a unified country right now. Because success was bringing it together,” he says. Before the pandemic, “I was getting calls from Democrats and people that normally I wouldn’t be talking to too much. They wanted to get together, they wanted to work things out. There were tremendous discussions going and then we got hit with covid and that superseded everything.”

He says that if he wins reelection, his opponents will finally have to accept his presidency and begin working with him. “I really believe that they will say it’s time, it’s time,” he says. “Success will bring our country together. … We’re going [to] make the economy stronger than ever before. The best year we’ve ever had was last year. The best year we will ever have is going to be next year and that’s going to bring people together.”

Right now, that message is not getting through. The president has just under three weeks to change that.

Read more:

Read a letter responding to this column: How is it possible that most Americans say they’re better off than in 2016?

Marc A. Thiessen: Trump’s covid-19 diagnosis gives him one last chance to reset his campaign

Marc A. Thiessen: An interview with President Trump: ‘The real hate is the hate from the other side’

Hugh Hewitt: How Trump has made the country better off than it was four years ago

Max Boot: How can 42 percent of Americans still support the worst president in our history?

Paul Waldman: Why progressives shouldn’t worry about Biden’s focus on moderate voters

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