But for the moment, Democrats say they are not worried about the offensive — and convinced instead that it will backfire. From the campaign of presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden down to local House races, operatives and lawmakers point to new public and private polling to argue that Trump is out of step with a nation worried about a new wave of coronavirus outbreaks and a second economic freeze.
“There is no doubt that people are anxious to get back to work, but what you see from Vice President Biden’s campaign is just much more realistic,” said Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.).
The result is a partisan messaging clash that is likely to last for months, as the country undergoes what appears to be a gradual release from the paralyzing social distancing policies Trump embraced with the nation’s governors over 45 days this spring. Democrats are positioning themselves as the party of gradual caution and concern for health, while Trump claims the space of bold action and economic bullishness.
The contrast can be seen daily on what passes for the campaign trail these days. Trump has returned to traveling the country on Air Force One, while refusing to wear a mask, as Biden claims to be quite content with campaigning from his Delaware home, where he has been spotted wearing a mask even inside. And as Trump demands that his party move forward with a grand nominating convention of thousands in North Carolina, Democrats are increasingly suggesting that a virtual meeting would be better than an arena show in Wisconsin.
Trump cheers on unmasked protesters railing against social distancing, urges his advisers to get him back to holding mass rallies and even shared a video testimonial of a Boston businessman saying he would rather get sick than keep his business closed. He has gone so far as to accuse Democrats of intentionally undermining the economy to win in November.
“The Democrats are moving slowly, all over the USA, for political purposes,” Trump tweeted.
White House officials say Democrats could pay a political price if they come to be seen as obstructionist scolds amid the effort to reopen the country. Trump has repeatedly criticized Michigan for its handling of the virus — an attack that seems driven by a particular animus for its Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer. Trump visited the state Thursday to tour a Ford plant that is manufacturing ventilators.
“Instead of working to reopen the nation, Democrats are preoccupied with appeasing their leftist base,” Trump campaign spokesman Ken Farnaso said in an email statement. “In fact, President Trump has led America to its greatest heights and is the only person equipped to do it again.”
The Democratic confidence that this will fail is anchored in extensive surveys that suggest the fight over opening more quickly is largely taking place within the Republican base, with Democrats and independents largely united in their conviction that the only way to recover economically is to focus first on preventing more outbreaks of disease.
A recent Quinnipiac University national poll found that 75 percent of voters say the country “should reopen slowly, even if it makes the economy worse,” rather than “reopen quickly, even if it makes the spread of the coronavirus worse.” Only 21 percent of independents and 4 percent of Democrats said they wanted a quicker reopening. The same poll found Biden with a 16-point advantage in his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, while he and Trump were effectively tied in their handling of the economy.
“The public is very clearly in a position where they of course want things to open, but they are very concerned about a second wave and they are very concerned about things that will prolong the crisis,” said Nick Gourevitch, a Democratic pollster who does research for Navigator Research, a consortium of liberal groups that seeks to inform party strategy. “The gambit could only work for Trump if there is no second wave and there is no repercussion for pushing things open too quickly.”
On Capitol Hill, Democratic lawmakers have unified around the idea that the best path to economic revival is listening to health experts.
“The idea that we can achieve economic development without a science-based approach is a fantasy,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “Everybody understands we can’t stay closed forever. The question is, can we do it based on the whims of a president who doesn’t know what he’s talking about or based on the guidance from the people who know what they’re talking about?”
Kristen Soltis Anderson, a Republican pollster and co-founder of Echelon Insights, has also found indications that the White House may be overestimating the public’s eagerness to return to daily life — at least when weighed against the potential risks.
“If leaders appear overeager to go back to normal operations before Americans feel confident that we can do so safely, those groups who are at particular risk of the health consequences — seniors — may be none too thrilled with that direction,” Anderson wrote in an email.
Yet inside the White House, many top advisers argue that although Trump deserves praise for any economic recovery, he should not be held accountable for new virus outbreaks as the country starts to reopen. Any fault, they say, likely rests with the nation’s governors.
“The governors mostly yelled when they thought that the president was robbing them of their responsibility to make the final decision on how and when to reopen,” said Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to the president. “This is the governors’ final decision, for which they bear responsibility.”
She added: “The president has deployed money, personnel, supplies and other resources to each state, has not compelled any one state to reopen, yet he is pleased that all 50 states now have some sort of reopening plan.”
The president’s focus on the economy reflects a growing sentiment among his top advisers that the nation is trending toward reopening and Americans simply cannot stay at home much longer if the economy is to avoid “permanent damage,” as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin testified before Congress on Tuesday.
“In October, if the economy is beginning to move forward and we have therapies in place that are effective and there’s a vaccine on the horizon, I think the president will be in good shape regarding the politics of the virus,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump ally.
A key goal of the White House, said a senior administration official, is to “bring down the temperature” of the nation and convince the public that it is safe to return to daily life, while following certain guidelines for reopening. This official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal talks, noted that Trump’s team understands there may be some outbreaks as part of the process, but believes the administration is now better equipped to handle such flare-ups.
White House aides have also argued that Trump’s rhetoric about faster reopening is not discordant with current polling.
“President Trump wants the country to reopen, but he wants it to reopen in a reasonable, rational, responsible way,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said. “And for a majority of the country, it’s time to begin to do that.”
The Biden campaign remains focused on blaming Trump for the depth of the crises, calling for a more muscular federal testing infrastructure and providing new support to rebuild the economy. His top advisers are operating on the assumption that Trump’s tactics — driving daily conflict — will perform less well in his second race for the White House.
“In 2016, Donald Trump owned the rhetoric. In 2020, he owns the reality,” said Jake Sullivan, a top policy adviser for Hillary Clinton who now works in a similar role for Biden. “In 2016, slogans like ‘Reopen’ or ‘Transition to Greatness’ were unencumbered by any accountability and reality. In 2020, he is the president.”
In the states, however, there are diminishing partisan differences in how leaders are handling the reopening, with many moving faster in areas where there has been less infection, as federal health officials have recommended.
“A lot of states have been doing exactly what we asked them to: find, test, contact trace and contain,” Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said in a briefing Tuesday with reporters.
Birx paraphrased the governor of Mississippi, who in conversations with her had likened reopening to “a dimmer switch.”
“And we’re just going to turn it a little bit every day until we can see if people’s behavior changed enough to stem the spread of the virus,” she said.
Beyond the call for caution and a scientific focus, Democrats have so far held back from putting forth detailed proposals of their own to guide reopening. Biden’s focus has been to call for more federal testing and contact-tracing efforts.
The most ambitious Democratic proposal beyond that — the House’s Reopen America Act — would put the Department of Health and Human Services and an expert advisory panel in charge of approving state reopening plans, using the lure of federal assistance money to ensure state cooperation.
But despite the support of 67 House Democrats, the measure was not included in a coronavirus response bill that passed the House last week and is expected to form the basis for negotiations with Republicans for the next bipartisan package.
For now, the public is embracing a more cautious approach. In Wisconsin, a pivotal battleground state, a Marquette University Law School poll this month found just 31 percent of voters supported recent demonstrations calling for quicker reopening, while 63 percent opposed them. More than half of Republicans, however, supported the demonstrations.
“Wisconsinites are as eager as anyone to reopen,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), a potential vice presidential pick for Biden. “We just know we have to do it safely. The partisan nature of Trump’s statements is wearing very thin.”
Mike DeBonis and Anne Gearan contributed to this report.