Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
Donald Trump has undoubtedly gripped the seriousness of the coronavirus crisis. A self-declared “war-time president”, he now – belatedly – understands the scale of the challenge in front of him.
And yet typically of this White House, the response has descended into infighting and political positioning (I hope you were sitting down when you read that shocking statement).
Most recently, Peter Navarro, the US Trade Adviser, clashed with Dr Anthony Fauci, the infectious disease expert at the heart of the scientific advice being fed into the White House on Covid-19. Navarro, a known China hawk who has poured fuel on the fire of the President’s trade wars with Beijing, has cited his PhD in economics whilst defending his right to debate the use of the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to combat coronavirus.
Dr Fauci, who has consistently said there is no clinical evidence the drug can help against Covid-19, has been director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984. It is not hard to see who should win that debate. And yet Trump has consistently encouraged Americans to take hydroxychloroquine, siding with Navarro over Fauci.
The latter has faced a barrage of criticism from conservative outriders that have made their names by being the most prominent cheerleaders for the President, such as Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. If the impact of the virus on the American people continues to worsen, we should reasonably expect the President to insist Dr Fauci resign or be fired, fronting the blame for a sluggish American response.
But what about 2020?
The federal government and states around the USA are rightly focused on the immediate task in hand – fighting the virus, curing the sick and getting the most vulnerable into sheltered and safe accommodation. But the 2020 general election is not far away.
Here, there are political parallels to be drawn between the United States and United Kingdom. Much like Sir Keir Starmer, the newly minted Labour leader, Joe Biden is finding it hard to carve his niche as the (effective) leader of the opposition. An overly political response to the crisis will mean both men appear unpatriotic, putting cheap political point-scoring ahead of the national interest at a time of genuine crisis. It is to Starmer’s credit that he has begun his tenure in a spirit of genuine goodwill and cooperation with the government.
In the US, on the other hand, Biden is fighting an uphill battle to stay relevant at a time when the voting public seem decreasingly interested in party politics. Prior to the crisis he looked to be building an insurmountable lead against Senator Bernie Sanders, but momentum has slowed. The Georgia primary had been earmarked at the point at which Biden might declare victory and Sanders accept defeat. But the primary has now been postponed until May and Biden will have to wait, potentially until the summer, for his coronation.
Until then, for the next few months, his team must consider how to fight the first ever digital-only presidential campaign in American history. A new 20 minute per episode podcast series – ‘Here’s the Deal’ – is a creative first attempt, but one that has flattered to deceive so far. Video conferences from the basement of his home neither resemble the performances of a president in waiting nor look like the setting fit for the leader of the free world. It turns out working from home is a challenge for the rich and powerful just as much as the rest of us.
The fundamentals of the election campaign have changed on two fronts
First, the major benchmark by which the president will be assessed in November will be his handling of the economy and his response to Covid-19.
Second, the very nature of campaigning has been flipped entirely. All of the familiar signs of a nationwide election have been upended. Biden’s Philadelphia headquarters has been emptied and the entire campaign is now working remotely, according to its communications director. There will be no door-knocking, no rallies, no leafleting, and no new yard signs erected for the foreseeable future.
An old-school politician who campaigns best when shaking hands and smiling for selfies, Biden is instead restricted to daily briefings from his basement. Zoom has added yet another senior citizen who appears uncomfortable with the use of the technology to its platform.
American politics has not laid down its partisan weapons; far from it. But in a time of crisis, the American people expect their politicians to work together. On that basis, the Biden campaign and the Democratic Party have a thin line to tread. They must be cooperative but not kind. The President has shown no sign of putting his political instincts to one side, proven by his insistence that the coronavirus is a “Chinese virus” and should be seen as more evidence of Beijing’s attack on American power on all fronts.
Further, there are countless examples of presidents and prime ministers around the world who are being rewarded for their serious responses to the crisis. Despite what appears to be an erratic response to COVID-19, from the start to the end of March Trump’s approval rating has increased by five points (Gallup). In the same timeframe, approval of Boris Johnson’s government has increased by 17 points (YouGov). Fostering too much of a spirit of cooperation without challenging White House decision-making might guarantee the President re-election.
Trump has curbed his initial instinct to try free America from the shackles imposed by governors in the vast majority of states around the country. National health is, for the moment at least, more important than the economic revival.
With Louisiana and Georgia having delayed their presidential primaries, attention will quickly turn to the viability of an election due to take place on November 3rd.
The general election has been set by federal law since the 1800’s. Changing the date would take legislation enacted by Congress and signed by the President. But the Constitution requires the new Congress to be sworn in on January 3rd and the President sworn in by January 20th respectively. This highlights the scale of the challenge in seeking to change the election date.
Instead, a more likely path ahead is further delays to presidential primaries that will stifle the momentum on all sides. Campaigning will pose a physical threat to the candidates seeking the presidency, all three of whom are vulnerable based on their ages (Trump, Biden and Sanders are all over 70 years old).
This will put more pressure on postal votes and digital campaigning, as Americans may feel reluctant to engage en masse even when state-wide lockdowns are loosened or lifted. And it will reward candidates with existing financial backing and a sophisticated advertising strategy across TV, social and digital media.
While the election date is unlikely to fall victim to Covid-19, questions are beginning to arise about the two conventions. The Democratic convention is set for Milwaukee, Wisconsin in July and Republicans are due to meet in Charlotte, North Carolina at the end of August. It is possible both parties will have to find ways to crown their candidates without the usual pomp of a ticker tape ceremony in front of tens of thousands of delegates packed into a tight space.
It is clear that Covid-19 is not going away any time soon. An public health crisis has quickly become something which will define the current generation of political leaders. Partisanship has given way to a genuine sense of cooperation, but that will not last. As presidents and prime ministers face up the hard decisions of when to lift lockdowns, opposition parties will be prime to critique their responses. Step forward Biden and Starmer.