The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Overestimating Trump is a mistake. So is underestimating him.

President Trump at the White House on Monday.
President Trump at the White House on Monday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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To the distress of those who recognize President Trump’s mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis, he seems to be getting a political bounce from a national tragedy that he has conceded is likely to take at least 100,000 American lives.

At the same time, former vice president Joe Biden, Trump’s likely opponent in this fall’s election, has been eclipsed in public attention by New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. The Democratic governor’s daily briefings are his party’s antidote to Trump’s afternoon briefings, which double as virtual campaign rallies for the president. For many, “Biden” has replaced “Waldo” in the question that begins “Where’s . . . ?”

Is the Trump bump temporary, or can he sustain it? And can Biden find his way back into the public conversation?

To counteract the Democrats’ habit of moving from complacency to panic and back again at the speed of light, let’s start by challenging the questions.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Yes, Trump has enjoyed a modest rise in the polls, but it is nothing like the rally-around-the-flag boost that most presidents get during a major crisis. He has, after all, dominated television screens nationwide — even if he traffics in inaccurate, outrageous and contradictory statements (to wit, the coronavirus was “like a flu” on Feb. 26 and “not the flu” on March 31). And, said Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg, “Nobody wants him to fail. I don’t want him to fail.”

Skeptics of the Trump bump also note that his approval ratings, which are already showing signs of leveling off, are far below those of governors dealing with the pandemic. And today’s polling numbers can have a short expiration date. As a veteran Washington Democrat close to Biden said of crises: “How they end up is a lot more meaningful than how they look when they’re going on.”

President Trump on April 1 said he was open to speaking with former vice president Joe Biden on the phone about the coronavirus. (Video: The Washington Post)

As for Cuomo, he has had an extraordinary run because of his fact-based briefings and his telling criticisms of the administration’s failures. Why, he rightly asks, are states bidding against each other and also against the Federal Emergency Management Agency to purchase ventilators and other medical equipment? It’s a near-perfect illustration of the Trump administration’s mismanagement (or nonmanagement) of the response.

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But Cuomo is on TV for a reason: He has a job to do in the state hit hardest by the virus so far. Biden is a candidate but not an officeholder, and challengers, as Greenberg noted, always have trouble barging into the big story during an emergency.

Defenders of Biden, who still leads Trump in the polls, also argue that he regularly raises questions about the president’s handling of the crisis. He does this indirectly but pointedly in a new digital ad in which he says that the medical “heroes on the front lines” should not be “without the protective equipment they need and deserve.” Moreover, defenders insist, Biden is reaching more people through online town halls, podcasts and the like than he would if he were following a normal campaign schedule.

And Biden could get a publicity bump from the primary scheduled for next Tuesday in Wisconsin, where polls show him well ahead of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

One of the frustrations of being Biden these days, said the Washington Democrat close to him, is being asked during a media appearance what he is doing to be more visible on the media. Biden made light of such irritation when he told MSNBC’s Yasmin Vossoughian on Monday: “Well, thanks for giving me the time. So they don’t wonder where I am.”

But that question’s plaintiveness also suggests that if Democratic panic is premature, complacency is more dangerous. In 2016, both Trump’s opponents and (ironically, perhaps) the media underestimated the enormous value of his ability to command wall-to-wall coverage. Even when he peddles outright falsehoods, Trump’s version of events often penetrates widely before it’s even fact-checked. Trump can change his story so fast that it’s hard to keep up with him.

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Moreover, Democrats, including Biden, would be foolish to let Trump dominate the discussion of what needs to be done to lift the country up after the coronavirus threat ebbs. Greenberg argues that proposals to handle the country’s enormous morning-after problems should be a priority for Democrats at every level.

Trump is already trying to get a bead on them. There he was on Tuesday touting $2 trillion in infrastructure spending, and never mind that he regularly parades up and down the infrastructure hill without building anything. He is a master of image over substance, of looking like he’s decisive to cover up bad decisions or the failure even to make them.

Trump’s foes, in other words, need to chill out and buck up at the same time. Overestimating Trump feeds his power. But underestimating him leads to political ruin.

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Max Boot: Joe Biden has character. Donald Trump does not. This crisis makes it obvious.

Michael Beschloss: What Trump can learn from real wartime presidents