But at least for now, Trump may be acting on a false sense of political urgency. That’s because early reviews of his handling of the virus have generally been more positive than negative, and his approval rating has actually ticked up to new highs in some polls. And even amid a free-falling stock market, it doesn’t seem to have diminished Americans’ views of his stewardship of the economy.
All of that could change rather quickly, of course, and polling regularly shows a temporary rallying effect behind a president in times of peril. But as Trump seeks a change in course, it’s worth noting that it’s somewhat counterintuitive — and that he may be miscalculating about precisely what the American people want from him at this moment.
A Gallup poll on Tuesday showed Trump’s approval rating tied for its highest point in his presidency, at 49 percent. Independents’ support for him has risen from 35 percent early this month to 43 percent, while Democrats have jumped from 7 percent to 13 percent. Most of the new poll was conducted after Trump began advocating a more serious response to the coronavirus on March 16.
The other major poll this week, from Monmouth University, also showed Trump’s approval rating hitting a new high of 46 percent. And while other polls don’t all show such increases, his average approval rating in FiveThirtyEight’s compilation of polls (44.7 percent) is at its highest point since March 2017, while his average in the RealClearPolitics compilation (46.0 percent) is at its second-highest point since February 2017.
His marks on the coronavirus response specifically are even better. Gallup showed Americans approve of him on that 60 percent to 38 percent, with even 27 percent of Democrats on board.
Others don’t have it quite so high, but he remains in positive territory. Monmouth showed that 50 percent say he’s done a “good job” on the coronavirus, vs. 45 percent who say he’s done a “bad job.” Yet another poll from Democratic groups Global Strategy Group and GBAO Strategies showed 52 percent approved of his coronavirus response, compared to 43 percent who disapprove. About 1 in 5 Democrats in both polls had a positive impression.
Which brings us to the economy. There is less prevalent recent polling on that, but an Economist/YouGov poll this week showed 50 percent rate Trump’s performance on jobs and the economy as being positive vs. just 39 percent negative. And that’s even as people have recognized the downturn: Half of voters said the economy is getting worse, while just 19 percent say it’s getting better. To the extent they’re worried about the economy, they seem to be blaming the virus rather than the president.
Whether all that might sustain itself as the virus spreads is the big question. There are also valid questions about how much people are truly basing these ratings on Trump’s performance and how much they are trying to present a united front in the battle against the outbreak. The Monmouth poll, notably, showed much better reviews for governors (72 percent rated their own as doing a “good job”) than for Trump, so perhaps Trump isn’t personally getting as much of a rallying effect as he otherwise might have.
But Trump also spent weeks downplaying the threat of coronavirus, in contrast to health experts, and people don’t seem to have judged him too negatively for it. Ditto Trump’s many false claims about and dubious comparisons involving the situation. It seems possible that even amid a big economic downturn, people might continue to blame the virus rather than the president — unless he gives them a reason to believe he has made things worse.
And that’s where the new proposal comes in. It’s not at all clear Trump will even be able to reopen parts of the economy as he desires, given governors have the most control over that and are roundly skeptical of his idea. Perhaps this is a tactic as much as anything: Saying he wants to reopen the economy while recognizing it’s not going to happen, and then saying any resulting economic pain isn’t his fault because the governors didn’t listen to him.
But if Trump is able to persuade at least some Republican governors to loosen the reins and it leads to the kind of health calamity that some health experts are cautioning, it would be pretty easy to trace that to Trump personally. He would have inserted himself into the situation in a way that he didn’t need to, over the objections of health experts, inviting the kind of personal culpability he’s not currently experiencing.
It’s also important to note that, even if Trump’s numbers have ticked up, it doesn’t mean he’s suddenly in good shape for reelection. The fundamentals continue to work against him, and he views the coronavirus as a variable which he’d rather not have to deal with. But even that would seem to argue for getting rid of that variable, first and foremost, and hoping people come to recognize the downturn was the virus’s fault, rather than his. That’s a conclusion they seem open to, at least at this very early juncture — before more very difficult decisions will be made.