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Politics in the time of COVID-19: Will Trump’s legacy be shaped by the coronavirus crisis?

“These are the issues that are often remembered about a president,” said an expert on presidential leadership.

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, left, Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., Associate Director for Laboratory Science and Safety Steve Monroe, and Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., about the coronavirus at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Friday, March 6, 2020.
Alex Brandon, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Presidential legacies can be shaped by unforeseen crises. Unlike wars or partisan conflicts, natural disasters and public health emergencies, like the coronavirus outbreak, happen quickly and without opportunity for an administration to gauge the social and political impact.

President George W. Bush’s approval ratings sank and never recovered after his administration’s lackluster response in 2005 to Hurricane Katrina, one of the deadliest and most powerful storms to have crashed upon the nation’s shores.

President Donald Trump wants his presidential legacy to be a strong economy or a “big, beautiful wall,” on the southern border with Mexico. But as financial markets decline and more coronavirus cases and associated deaths in the United States are confirmed, the outbreak threatens to eclipse the positives of Trump’s presidency.

The virus, which has caused at least 41 deaths in the U.S. as of Thursday, comes at the beginning of an election year where the topic is on the minds of voters and Trump’s political opponents. Containing and responding to the virus will be a key measurement of his competency as a leader and the public’s trust in his ability to manage a crisis, experts say.

“These are the issues that are often remembered about a president. Not the details of the crisis, but was the president able to make people feel safe?,” said Jeremi Suri, a political science professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas who has written several books on presidential leadership.

For the first time since the coronavirus threat became public and the administration imposed a travel ban from China, the president gave an oval office speech attempting to calm constituents and the financial markets. But the stock market plunged again. The president spoke in a press conference Thursday morning and in response to the plunge, said lives are more important than the stock market and he made the decisions necessary to protect the country.

On Friday, he declared a national emergency to deal with coronavirus outbreak.

Complicating the challenge for Trump is the partisanship baked into America’s democracy, which can make it difficult for voters to determine through the political noise whether their leader is succeeding or failing at the job.

Trust, expertise, unity

How should a president act to unite a worried country?

Suri said in an interview that there are three qualities a president needs to lead a country though disaster, and ultimately to reelection.

“Trust is No. 1,” said Suri. “People have to believe you in a crisis where there are all kinds of rumors and fears.

The second is the ability for a president to find experts best qualified to attack the problem. “You don’t have time to be political,” he said.

The last attribute is the ability for the president to communicate in a way that brings the country together, said Suri, noting people look for a father figure in their political leaders. “It’s really about uniting people in a crisis moment,” he said.

The president has tried to mitigate fear, and perhaps the political consequences, of the virus since his administration first confirmed positive COVID-19 cases in the United States. But his opponents have said the efforts are too little, too late and they have highlighted instances where he has contradicted government experts enlisted to combat the spread of the virus.

In his prime-time televised speech Wednesday, Trump noted “unprecedented” action taken by his administration to protect Americans, saying the travel ban on China saved thousands of lives. He then announced a European travel ban and an economic stimulus proposal to shield business and workers from the impact of the virus.

“If we are vigilant, and we can reduce the change of infection — which we will — we will significantly impede the transmission of the virus,” Trump said. “No nation is more prepared or more resilient than the United States.”

At Friday’s news conference, Trump declared a national emergency to “unleash the full power of the federal government” and deploy the private sector to stop of spread of the virus.

His tone was markedly different from two weeks earlier, when he more casually said that “within a couple days” the coronavirus cases in American would be down from 15 “to close to zero.” And that came after Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Deputy Director Anne Schuchat and Health and Human Service Secretary Alex Azar said more COVID-19 cases were expected. The officials were correct and cases in the Unites States have grown daily to more than 1,300.

As U.S. and international stock markets took a hit Monday, unsettled by the continued spread of the virus compounded by an oil price war, Trump took to Twitter to downplay the nation’s fears.

He compared COVID-19 to the “common flu” and that “nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on.”

But by the end of the day, he announced an economic stimulus package he wanted Congress to consider that would mitigate the financial impact on business of the virus’ spread. The next day, the stock market surged, then declined again on Wednesday as uncertainty over the coronavirus outbreak returned. And after Wednesday’s address, markets plummeted again.

His speech noted an $8.3 billion emergency aid package that he signed last week to combat the virus. The emergency appropriation that a nearly unanimous Congress approved was nearly four times what his administration had proposed to Congress.

“I asked for $2.5 (billion), and I got 8.3,” the president said. “And I’ll take it.”

Asked if any single action like signing the bill, giving a speech or declaring a national emergency can establish the trust and unity a president needs to be seen as a leader during this public health crisis, Suri said it is a series of actions that establish trust.

“It’s your history that helps provide people with trust,” he said. “Even late in the game is better than doing nothing.”

Political incentives

While taking action to protect the public, elected officials on both sides of the aisle are also politicizing the health crisis to their advantage. Early on, at a campaign rally Trump accused Democrats for using the coronavirus as another “hoax” to turn the public against him, while Democrats blasted the president for downplaying the crisis and accused him of delaying the government’s response.

“I’m very frustrated at the steps the president has taken, from repeatedly contradicting experts’ advice to downplaying the seriousness of this threat, and to appointing a politician (Vice President Mike Pence) to lead the response,” said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, during a hearing of the Senate Health Committee, on which she is the ranking Democrat.

Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas chided committee members — which convened to hear an update from public health officials experts to better understand the threat of coronavirus — for using the virus as a weapon against the administration.

Sarcastically, Roberts said the committee should consider quarantining lawmakers that wouldn’t “shut up about the politics.”

“We can do better,” he said.

In his speech Wednesday, the president urged elected leaders to “put politics aside, stop the partisanship, and unify together as one nation and one family. As history has proven time and time again, Americans always rise to the challenge and overcome adversity.and work together to address the coronavirus outbreak.”

James Curry, a political science professor at the University of Utah, explained that will be difficult to do, particularly in an election year.

He said there is an incentive in politics when something bad happens — like a public health disaster in an election year — “to levy the blame for it on the other side” if your party is not in the majority.

“Essentially, we work in a political system that is a zero-sum game because we have exactly two parties and we have two parties who function in elections that are entirely winner take all,” said Curry, who has also worked as a congressional staffer on Capitol Hill.

“Your party has the majority or it doesn’t,” he said.

‘I paid a price’

Seven months into his second term, Bush flew over New Orleans in Air Force One. He peered out the window as photographer Jim Watson released the shutter on his camera. It was Aug. 31, 2005, and the plane was returning the president to Washington from his ranch in Texas.

Below the large white and baby blue jet was the Gulf Coast, ravaged by Hurricane Katrina just two days prior. Levees built to protect the city had failed as Katrina surged, killing more than 1,800 people and totaling more than $161 billion in damage. Survivors needed water, food, shelter, emergency medical care and for someone to lift them from the flood.

Watson’s now famous portrait captures the president looking — in Bush’s own words — “detached and uncaring.” The photo would become symbolic to the administration’s handling of the natural disaster, according to The Hill.

Years later, Bush understands the consequences of the decisions he made in 2005. He said he worried at the time that emergency responders would be distracted by his visit instead of saving lives.

“In retrospect, however, I should have touched down in Baton Rouge, met with the governor and walked out and said, ‘I hear you. We understand. And we’re going to help the state and help the local governments with as much resources as needed,’” Bush said of the flyover.

“And then got back on a flight up to Washington. I did not do that. And paid a price for it,” Bush lamented.

The Bush administration, like much of the Gulf, would never be the same. The 44th president averaged a 62% approval rating in his first term — in the midst of 9/11 and two wars. But Bush’s approval would flounder to a 37% average in his last term, show Gallup polls.

“Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, you want the ... government to be doing all the things necessary to keep you safe,” Suri said. Support diminishes when the electorate doesn’t feel secure.