The reality-show President has decided it’s time to restore his role as the pandemic’s executive producer. Facing lagging poll numbers, dwindling public confidence in his ability to manage a response to the coronavirus threat and a shrinking window to turn it all around before Election Day in November, President Donald Trump plans to return to the White House briefing room on Tuesday evening to restart the regular coronavirus briefings. It turns out musing about cleaning-solvent and sunlight injection treatments are not sufficient reasons to banish a contestant from the klieg lights after all.
Trump last participated in a full televised debrief with his coronavirus task force on April 23. At the time, Trump enjoyed a 49% job approval rating, according to Gallup’s polling. Since then, with 3.8 million Americans now diagnosed with coronavirus and more than 141,000 U.S. deaths, Trump’s overall approval rating has slid to 38%. Compared to this point in the presidencies of his six most recent predecessors, Trump trails the four who won re-election, according to models from statisticians at FiveThirtyEight. As much as Americans didn’t love his conduct as coronavirus czar, they seem to have preferred him bungling the response over him being an absentee executive.
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It’s clear to everyone now that the coronavirus crisis and the ensuing economic meltdown show no immediate signs of relenting. As much as the President likes to say it’ll all “go away,” the only things disappearing are jobs — and the belief that Trump can bring them back. The unemployment rate is still expected to be around 12% in the final quarter of the year, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office. (The year began with 4% of Americans reporting they were unemployed.)
The other vanishing commodity in the President’s field of vision? His odds of re-election. For Trump to win a second term, he is going to have to shift the focus from the ravaged economy to its recovery. Presidents can win a second term with tough unemployment numbers if the trends are going in the favor of the incumbent. But we’ve not seen the double-barrel question of wanton joblessness and public health implosion in recent history. The best analog may be the election of 1920, when Democrats refused to nominate the unpopular and ill incumbent President Woodrow Wilson to a third term in the wake of World War I and the 1918 Spanish Flu that, according to U.S. estimates, left 675,000 Americans dead.
Trump’s return to the nation’s daily healthcare lecturer is one of necessity. Trump trails his presumptive rival Joe Biden by a wider gap than he trailed his 2016 competitor Hillary Clinton at this point. The latest ABC News/ Washington Post poll has Trump trailing by double-digits. The political headwinds seem so strong that last week he replaced his campaign manager and brought on-board other aides in an effort to shore up some sort of firewall. Winning campaigns simply don’t fire their chiefs.
Nevertheless, Team Trump isn’t openly despondent. Trump himself has taken a shine to mocking polling data that shows him behind. In an interview that aired Sunday, Trump summarily dismissed the surveys. “I’m not losing because those are fake polls. They were fake in 2016 and now they’re even more fake,” Trump told Fox News’s Chris Wallace. It’s not an irrational assertion. At this point in 2016, surveys showed Clinton with an easy wallop over Trump. Although she did triumph by 3 million votes, the raw tallies didn’t matter. She trailed by 80,000 votes in three battleground states and ended up losing the Electoral College vote. It’s why Trump keeps puffing up his chest a little bit when his doubters roll their eyes — eyes that, no doubt, will be on the White House podium come Tuesday evening.
A version of this article first appeared in The DC Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox every weekday.
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