For anyone plugged in to the news firehose about the coronavirus pandemic, it has been extremely bizarre to watch President Trump's approval rating. He has botched the crisis beyond belief, and the United States now has the biggest outbreak in the world. Because of his ongoing failure to secure stockpiles of medical supplies, doctors and nurses are re-using protective gear over and over, and suiting up in garbage bags and page protectors to treat COVID-19 patients. Some have already caught the virus and died — along with over 1,300 others at time of writing, which is very likely an underestimate.
Yet Trump's approval rating keeps going up. Poll averages show a marked bump in favorable ratings, a recent Washington Post/ABC poll has him above water. He does even better on the coronavirus response, with a Gallup poll finding him at 60 percent approval of his handling of the situation.
This is what happens when the Democratic Party, de facto led at this point by its presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden, refuses to make the case that Trump is in fact responsible for the severity of the disaster. Biden is proving to be about the worst imaginable nominee to take on Trump.
Now, Biden is not entirely to blame here. Surely some of Trump's approval bump can be chalked up to the usual "rally around the flag" effect that tends to happen at times of crisis, and the fact that we are likely still in the very early stages of the pandemic.
But if we dig into the numbers, some of the bump in Trump's approval rating is coming from changes in Democratic attitudes. A Pew poll, for instance, found that Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters nearly doubled their approval of Trump over the last few weeks, from 7 to 12 percent. It's not a huge change, but it could make the difference between Trump winning or losing in an election which is likely to be close.
As has been made abundantly clear, Democratic voters tend to take their cues from Democratic elites. The party rallied around Biden in lockstep right before Super Tuesday, and voters fell in line. Biden won multiple states he has not visited in months and in which he had no campaign offices. And now that he's the probable nominee, Biden is not savaging Trump's response. On the contrary, his campaign says they are hesitant to even criticize him at all. "As much as I dislike Trump and think what a bad job he's doing, there's a danger now that attacking him can backfire on you if you get too far out there. I don't think the public wants to hear criticism of Trump right now," one adviser told Politico.
Indeed, Biden has barely been doing anything. As the outbreak became a full-blown crisis, Biden disappeared for almost an entire week. His campaign said it was trying to figure out how to do video livestreams, something any 12-year-old could set up in about 15 minutes. (Hey guys: Any smartphone with Twitter, YouTube, or Twitch installed can become a broadcasting device with the press of a single button.) When Biden did finally appear, he gave some scripted addresses that still had technical foul-ups, and did softball interviews where he still occasionally trailed off mid-sentence.
People crave leadership during times of crisis, as evidence by the sudden surge of positive sentiment towards New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who seriously mishandled the initial crisis response, and is still trying to cut Medicaid, but has been giving reassuring daily press conferences where he seems like he is on top of the situation. Washington state Governor Jay Inslee did a much, much better job (just compare the numbers in New York to those in Washington state), but has gotten comparatively little attention precisely because there are a lot fewer cases and deaths (and there are many fewer reporters in Seattle than New York City).
Trump, meanwhile, is similarly out there on TV every day boasting about how what he's doing is so smart and good. What he's saying is insanely irresponsible and has already gotten people killed, but absent an effective response from the Democratic leadership, it can appear to casual news consumers as though he has the situation in hand. Democratic backbenchers and various journalists are screaming themselves hoarse, but it plainly isn't working.
Biden's strategy appears to be to coast to the presidency in basically the same way he coasted to the nomination: Keep public appearances and therefore embarrassing verbal flubs to a minimum, and rely on Trump's disastrous governance to do all the work for him. But this is a horribly risky strategy. Biden is already a candidate whose awful record will make it harder to attack Trump on trade, protecting Social Security and Medicare, corruption, mental fitness, and his treatment of women — indeed, just recently a former Biden staffer came forward with an allegation that he had sexually assaulted her 26 years ago. Hunkering down and refusing to criticize Trump's world-historical bungling risks him successfully arguing that it was an unforeseeable disaster and he did the best anyone could have done.
Contrary to these half-baked notions that the public doesn't want to hear criticism of Trump, we saw during impeachment that once Democrats actually started going through with it, approval jumped — largely because the liberal rank-and-file took that as a cue it was indeed a good idea. It's just another instance of the Democratic establishment's habit of hiding their desire to avoid conflict and do nothing behind an imagined obstacle of public opinion, when in fact they can change those opinions dramatically by offering a strong and clear alternative.
Moreover, if and when Biden does become president, he will be in charge of a country in ruins. Fixing the place up will require extremely energetic leadership. But both Biden, his campaign, and the Democratic establishment seem to believe that if they just pretend hard enough, everything will go back to normal on its own. It is willful blindness on par with the worst Trump loyalists.
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