Recently on MSNBC, anchor Nicole Wallace became giddy over the prospect said that the coronavirus could be President Trump’s “Katrina” — code for a crisis perceived to be mismanaged that turns the tide of public opinion against the president.
From a political perspective, it is instructive to remember that Hurricane Katrina occurred at the end of August 2005, after George W. Bush’s reelection. After the catastrophic 9/11 attacks in Bush’s first term, his strong leadership was successfully leveraged by his 2004 reelection campaign with the message “A Safer World and More Hopeful America.”
Then in September 2008, a devastating financial implosion swept Wall Street into what we now call the Great Recession, which further eroded Americans’ confidence in a president already beleaguered by Katrina’s aftermath and the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Therefore, rather than merely Trump’s Katrina, could the coronavirus rank higher on the financial devastation scale, combining both 9/11 and the ’08 crisis? Quite possibly.
The following two headlines facilitating that perception were linked Wednesday at different times at the Drudge Report: “Airlines Brace for Shock Rivaling Fallout From 9/11…” and “JETBLUE CEO: Impact on Airline ‘Probably Worse’ Than 9/11…”
A popular conservative news site referencing a key industry in stories that use the terms “fallout” and “9/11” surely got Trump’s attention. That, coupled with nationwide closures, cancellations, and overall panic, points to the potential onset of a downward economic spiral reminiscent of the 2008 market meltdown.
All of the above was the impetus for Trump’s 11-minute Oval Office speech Wednesday night. The president, master of showman’s optics — wanting to be perceived as a tough-guy/take-charge leader who is not afraid of decisive action — is politically at risk like never before. Given that a strong economy is the centerpiece of his reelection message, it could all collapse due to a microscopic pathogen hatched in China.
Numerous Trump supporters I spoke with this week believe that the virus is being used by Democrats and their media allies “to take down Trump.” Such thinking is consistent with the “Trump can do no wrong” mentality among his ultra-loyal base. Nonetheless, this loyalty could be tested if a severe recession strikes.
Up to now, Trump has been fortunate that during the first three years of his presidency, he was not confronted with a crisis of epic proportions. (One could say that impeachment qualifies, but other than a historic stain on this record, there was zero chance that Trump would be removed from office — and what a fundraising boom!)
But the law of probabilities suggested it was only a matter of time before a cataclysmic event tested his administration and the unorthodox leadership style that some Americans believe has escalated polarization to Civil War levels. Now, that test has arrived and, to no one’s surprise, America’s perception of the coronavirus correlates to party affiliation.
This week, a headline in Axios’s daily newsletter read “Partisan split extends to virus.” The finding, according to the Axios|SurveyMonkey poll, is that “62% of Republicans see news reports about the seriousness of the novel coronavirus as ‘generally exaggerated,’ DOUBLE the percentage of Democrats saying so (31%). Among independents, 35% see the reports as likely exaggerated, with more, 45%, saying they’re ‘generally correct’ and another 16% indicating the seriousness of the outbreak is ‘generally underestimated.'”
Viewing the coronavirus crisis through a political lens could be perceived as another opportunity for Trump to rally his base for reelection — or, as equally beneficial to his Democratic opponent. The truth is that virus-related news and the economic fallout are being spun and weaponized by both sides. Expect that tactic to escalate as November approaches. Meanwhile, the virus is only “political” until you or a loved one is stricken, or financial hardship hits your household. Then it becomes personal.
As a public health crisis — at a time when health care is a leading issue for voters — no one knows when or how this contagion will play out.
What we do know is that presidential leadership plays a crucial role, and so far, the virus is Twitter-resistant. But there is a connection: The more Trump tweets, the more the virus of hyper-partisanship spreads. Then there is the question of how much Trump and his allies continue to blame the “fake media” and Democrats for stoking fear when the disease itself, and not merely the fear, has reached epidemic proportions. Trump seemed to comprehend this Wednesday night. “We must put politics aside, stop the partisanship, and unify together as one nation and one family,” he told the American people. Now that’s encouraging, if he leads by example.
Non-divisive communication, transparency, trust, confidence and information dissemination are vital elements of successful presidential leadership during a crisis. Unfortunately for Trump on March 11, Drudge Report had this headline: White House told federal health agency to classify deliberations…
The linked Reuters story read:
The White House has ordered federal health officials to treat top-level coronavirus meetings as classified, an unusual step that has restricted information and hampered the U.S. government’s response to the contagion, according to four Trump administration officials.
If classifying health information is also part of Trump’s leadership style, that is a prescription for increased fear that could foster an economic and political crisis equal to 9/11 and 2008. Our nation is suddenly in crisis mode with Trump’s leadership and management being tested while virus test kits are in short supply. Ultimately, Donald Trump will rise or fall as a crisis leader.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect those of Liberty Unyielding.
Cross posted in slightly modified form at RealClear Politics