Copy of Trump_Virus_Outbreak_06119.jpg-27df9~1-1584359528763
President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference on the coronavirus in the Rose Garden at the White House on March 13. Image Credit: AP

Dubai: Two months ago, US President Donald Trump was on a high, and looked unbeatable in his quest for another term in office in the face of a divided Democratic party. The US economy was expanding, a trade deal with China was being finalised and an Iranian spymaster, General Qasem Suleimani, had been eliminated by an American drone strike outside Baghdad airport.

Then came the pandemic. As the coronavirus hit China, the picture completely changed and Trump no longer looks so formidable. Democrats, on the other hand, are seizing on their new-found momentum as former vice president Joe Biden routed most other candidates by winning the most important primary polls, the Super Tuesday. The coronavirus, experts agree, could very well reshape the 2020 presidential elections.

In the latest Gallup poll, conducted February 17-28, 47 per cent of Americans approved of the job Trump was doing. This score remains in the upper range of the president’s ratings to date, according to the pollster.

“None of these [bad] news events seem to have affected the president’s current job approval rating appreciably. The two-percentage-point drop from earlier this month is not a statistically meaningful change,” explained the Gallup firm, referring to Trump’s 49 per cent approval rate one month ago.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, released Sunday, about half of Americans, 51 per cent, said they disapprove of how Trump is handling the coronavirus outbreak. But 45 per cent of voters said they approve of how the president is tackling the crisis.

Trump supporters and allies came out strongly in his defence after critics highlighted the President’s lacklustre response to the outbreak and his infamous tweet about the ‘Democratic hoax’ in the early days of the crisis. On Fox Business, Trish Regan accused the president’s critics and rivals of trying to “create mass hysteria to encourage a market sell-off” that would hurt his re-election prospects. Well-known broadcaster Rush Limbaugh complained that Trump was the target of “virus terrorism”. Trump critics disagree.

“Trump talks very tough. For three years, he said he was the only person who could solve any problem in the US. Now we have been confronted with the first major crisis of his presidency [the spread of the coronavirus], and he has fallen short,” said Moe Vela, who served for eight years in the Obama administration as Biden’s senior adviser. “The lack of early response, the lack of testing here in the United States has in the eyes of many people contributed greatly to the spread of the virus. We still at this moment do not have [virus] testing capabilities,” he told Gulf News in an interview on the telephone from New York, where he runs his political and business development consultancy firm.

REG 200316 Moe Vela-1584359524518
Moe Vela

He blamed the Trump administration for the steady rise in infections in the US. “We don’t even really know how many people are infected in the United States because the president and his administration were so slow to react.”

The numbers are higher than what is being reported, he said.

“The scary part is when you don’t have testing you don’t know [the real numbers}, because of the president having eliminated the Pandemic Response Office in the White House and cut the budget of the Centres for Disease Control. You add those things together with his desire to make this look less urgent and yes, [the number of cases is} absolutely underreported, because no one’s been tested.”

The US economy is on a slippery slope as the virus spreads around the world. In the US so far, health authorities announced 3,400 confirmed cases and 60 deaths. The stock market has lost trillions of dollars, and continues to slide despite the Federal Reserve’s moves in the past few days to cut the interest rate to zero and setting up a $700 billion relief fund to support the economy early Monday. Yet, the market tanked more than 1,000 points.

'Double-edged sword'

The economy, one of the strengths of Trump’s presidency, might lead to a spiralling decline in the president’s approval rating, Vela says. “If you’re going to live by the economy as your selling point, you can also die by the economy. It is a double-edged sword,” noted Vela, who has been involved in politics and with various US administrations for the past four decades. “His claim was that he should be re-elected because the economy was so great. So now, he has to live with the fact that everything he was banking on is crumbling and our economy absolutely has been damaged. This will absolutely adversely impact his electoral chances.”

One significant impact the virus will have on the Trump campaign is cancellation of rallies. The President takes pride in bringing out thousands of supporters in rallies. With restrictive measures on public events in most US cities in place, Trump will resort to social media to rally potential voters. On the other hand, Vela boasts that the crisis has “allowed Americans and the people around the world to see Joe Biden at his best because the minute he gets to the microphone he looks presidential”.

He believes that crisis has given Biden, who increasingly looks like the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee, “the chance to demonstrate his leadership, his experience, his ability to unite people. His ability to calm people down. It has provided him the opportunity to demonstrate why he should be the next president.” He thinks Biden’s Democratic rival, Senator Bernie Sanders will ultimately withdraw from the race.

Vela says the restrictions on people’s movement in US cities give the Democrats a much-needed momentum to reignite their election campaign.

“We’re all sitting like this without being able to see your friends; without being able to hug our family. We cannot go to the movies. We cannot go to our favourite restaurant. Every minute of every day while we are all sitting at home worried about catching this virus is a day that is a reminder that Donald Trump failed in a leadership test. Every day is a reminder. This [virus] will impact this election,” he explained.

However, will it be enough to beat the president? Vela cannot predict. The coronavirus outbreak “will affect the political outcome. Will [Trump] lose? I do not know. But will it damage his presidency? Absolutely,” he concluded.