Letters to the Editor • Opinion
The coronavirus pandemic is not over
Letters to the Editor • Opinion
We already know how to prevent pandemics
President Trump arrives at the State Dining Room in the White House for a roundtable with industry executives on Wednesday, April 29. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Before the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the country, President Trump’s campaign had a simple, economy-focused reelection pitch: “Keep America Great.”

Now, with the economy in free-fall less than six months before voters cast their ballots and daily life disrupted, Trump is trying a new tack: making bold new promises about a swift economic rebound that experts and even members of his own party say are unrealistic.

The president and his allies have embraced optimism as a central part of his new reelection push, offering a rosy message about a swift return to normal life despite the rising death toll and jobless claims resulting from the outbreak.

Vice President Pence predicted the virus’s impact will be largely over by Memorial Day. Much of the country will be back to normal by June, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a key campaign and White House adviser, told Fox News on Wednesday.

“The hope is that by July, the country’s really rocking again,” Kushner said.

The latest on the pandemic and the Trump administration’s response

For his part, Trump has already declared that the economy has begun a “comeback,” predicting “phenomenal” growth in the fourth quarter and arguing that he will quickly reconstruct what he describes as history’s “greatest economy.”

It’s a high-risk strategy that will require Trump to evade the political ramifications of a health crisis and a steep recession with the same sense of invulnerability that has kept his presidency afloat through numerous other controversies. As economists and health experts warn that this crisis is likely to linger longer and have a more severe impact than anything in recent memory, Trump is essentially risking his reelection on proving them wrong.

“The economists said a lot of things before Trump got elected — and he proved all of them wrong,” said Bryan Lanza, who advised Trump’s 2016 campaign and transition. “The good news is that President Trump doesn’t give a rip about what economists think.”

But economists from his own party and within his own administration are offering sober assessments that are at odds with the lofty projections from Trump and his top aides about a year-end resurgence. On Wednesday, the Commerce Department reported that the U.S. economy contracted at a 4.8 percent pace from January through March, and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell indicated that the second quarter would see even steeper declines.

Even some Trump allies agree that more economic pain is ahead.

“I don’t see a quick recovery,” said Stephen Moore, a conservative writer and activist who advised Trump’s 2016 campaign. “I think it’s going to take longer than most people seem to think it will.”

Moore, who serves on the White House council to reopen the country, added that it was “perfectly appropriate” for the president to put forward an optimistic message, and said voters would be willing to back him if the economy has emerged from the deep recession and things are trending in the right direction by November.

Trump’s willingness to personalize the economy — and the broader pandemic response — has opened him up to criticism from Democrats, who are more than willing to draw a link between the president’s performance and the country’s struggles.

“As Trump downplayed the threat of the coronavirus, his White House was caught flat-footed by the economic fallout that resulted from his complete mismanagement of this crisis,” Democratic National Committee spokesman Daniel Wessel said Wednesday.

The White House has increasingly formed the backdrop for the president’s positive messaging campaign. In recent days, Trump has reconfigured his daily appearances at the White House to focus more on the economy than the ongoing health crisis that has killed more than 60,000 Americans and continues apace. He has hosted dozens of CEOs and small business owners, holding celebratory news conferences to tout the federal aid that has been distributed so far.

Trump presented with grim internal polling showing him losing to Biden

As Trump has shifted his focus toward reopening the economy, the health experts on the White House’s coronavirus task force have taken on a less prominent public role, even as their warnings about a lingering crisis have become more direct.

Dr. Deborah Birx, the task force’s coordinator, predicted Sunday that social distancing will continue for months, undercutting more optimistic messaging from Trump and his allies.

“Social distancing will be with us through the summer to really ensure that we protect one another,” she said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Trump’s campaign has sought to highlight the president’s pre-pandemic record and paint him as a job creator who can quickly deliver on his promises of economic renewal.

“Under President Trump’s leadership, the economy reached unprecedented heights before it was artificially interrupted by the coronavirus, and he is the one to restore us to that position again,” said campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh. “When the economy grows again, it will be the great American comeback, and it will be because of President Trump’s leadership and America’s unyielding resolve.”

Trump’s allies have also focused on drawing a contrast with former vice president Joe Biden, attacking the Democratic presidential candidate as ill-equipped to lead the country back to economic health.

Trump continues to lead Biden in many polls asking voters whom they trust more on the economy, though the gap has narrowed and Biden continues to lead overall in several key swing states.

Despite widespread criticism and public disapproval over Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, Republicans remain firmly in his camp. That base support, which has helped Trump survive myriad scandals and impeachment, could prove pivotal as he attempts to convince voters to back him despite the growing toll of job losses and death.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) offered a display of the kind of loyalty Trump continues to enjoy from his party during a recent virtual event hosted by the Trump campaign.

“So what is the best leadership to give us strength against China? It’s clear beyond a doubt — President Trump,” McCarthy told the president’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, during the live-streamed event. “And [who] is the best to rebuild an economy? That is even easier, that it is President Trump that’ll take us right back to a strong economy.”

Economists have expressed doubt that the kind of “V-shaped” recovery President Trump has predicted is realistic.

“We’re certainly predicting some pretty bad second-quarter numbers and probably extending for a couple quarters,” said Scott Baker, who teaches finance at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

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Elizabeth McNichol, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, said the economic shock of the pandemic “is going to be around for a number of years.”

She cited recent Congressional Budget Office projections of double-digit unemployment and “continued weakness in economic activity” through 2021.

Even Trump’s handpicked economists have sounded the alarm. White House senior economic adviser Kevin Hassett told CNN on Tuesday that he was “worried” that growth projections for the end of the year could be disrupted by a fall resurgence of the virus.

Powell, the Fed chair, told reporters Wednesday that “the depth and the duration of the economic downturn are extraordinarily uncertain.”

The gloomy forecasts have not stopped some of Trump’s allies from echoing the president’s sunny messaging.

“We built the greatest economy in the world, and I want to get that back as soon as possible,” Trump said Wednesday during a meeting with business executives. “I think we can start getting it back very, very quickly.”

There have been some positive developments that Trump and his allies have sought to amplify.

On Wednesday, the stock market surged by more than 2 percent after Gilead Sciences reported “positive data” coming from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ clinical trial of its investigational remdesivir treatment for covid-19. The market is on pace for one of its best months in decades after falling precipitously due to the virus.

Trump has touted the market’s recovery as a sign of confidence in how his administration has handled the virus.

Still, Trump’s penchant for optimistic messaging has gotten him into trouble, including his embrace of potential coronavirus treatments ranging from an untested malaria drug to the injection of disinfectant. Both have proved to be potentially deadly, sparking warnings from the federal government against their use.

Democrats have juxtaposed the president’s early comments downplaying the virus with the devastating toll of the pandemic on the country.

A super PAC supportive of Biden debuted a new television ad on Tuesday that argued Trump has made good on his campaign pledge to “put America first” in at least one respect: the number of coronavirus cases.

The president’s allies say voters are unswayed by such attacks and don’t hold Trump’s lofty predictions against him in the way they do with traditional politicians.

“There’s nothing wrong with setting a goal and moving the entire government to try to get us to open the economy by a certain date,” said Lanza, the adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign and transition. “That’s why we hired a CEO” as president.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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