As the US struggles to contain the novel coronavirus, President Donald Trump appears much more focused on getting the economy back into fighting shape.
Over the past few days, the president has begun to advocate scaling back his own social-distancing guidelines to reopen the economy, even as experts agree that doing so would exacerbate the public-health crisis and increase the death toll.
On Sunday night, Trump argued that the “cure” for the pandemic could be “worse” for the country than the pandemic itself, controversially suggesting that economic damage outweighed the potentially massive loss of life.
“WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” he tweeted.
Trump clarified his stance during a Fox News “virtual town hall” on Tuesday, when he aggressively downplayed the threat posed by the virus, suggested he agreed to the federal social-distancing guidelines only for fear of political fallout, and argued that Americans “have to get back to work.”
“You can’t just come in and say let’s close up the United States of America, the biggest, the most successful country in the world by far,” Trump said. “We had the best economy in the history of our country, and then all of a sudden we’re supposed to shut it down.”
And Trump even argued that more Americans would die by suicide if businesses remain shut than would be killed by the spreading pandemic.
“More people are going to die if we allow this to continue — people have to go back to work,” he said of the lockdown. “We can’t lose the advantage that we have.”
A strong economy was Trump’s best case for reelection
Before the US epidemic, it had long been clear that Trump’s strongest case for reelection was the economy.
Voters, including crucial independents, have long given Trump significantly higher approval ratings for the way he handles than economy than for the way he handles leading the US government. A February Gallup poll found Americans’ satisfaction with the economy at a 15-year high and Trump’s economic approval rating higher than that of any president since George W. Bush following 9/11.
During his February 4 State of the Union address, Trump indicated he’d run largely on his perceived economic achievements after taking office well into the seventh year of a growing economy.
“From the instant I took office, I moved rapidly to revive the US economy,” Trump said. “In just three short years, we have shattered the mentality of American decline and we have rejected the downsizing of America’s destiny. We are moving forward at a pace that was unimaginable just a short time ago, and we are never going back.”
The coronavirus will most likely do massive economic damage.
Researchers at Morgan Stanley predicted this week that unemployment could skyrocket to 13% while the US economy was reduced by 30% in the third fiscal quarter of this year. The stock market, which Trump has long promoted as an indicator of his economic success, has taken a historic hit and, earlier this week, all of the gains made during Trump’s three years in office were erased.
The president has clearly grown concerned that the economic crisis could cost him the White House.
On Wednesday, the president even accused the media of promoting social distancing as a way to hurt his reelection chances.
“The LameStream Media is the dominant force in trying to get me to keep our Country closed as long as possible in the hope that it will be detrimental to my election success,” he wrote. “The real people want to get back to work ASAP. We will be stronger than ever before!”
A slew of conservative pundits are backing the president’s decision to prioritize the economy over American lives.
“When it comes to the long-term public health of the nation, a strong economy is the best way to protect it,” Tom Fitton, the president of the conservative group Judicial Watch, said in a video posted to Twitter.
The right-wing talk-radio host Glenn Beck argued that Americans over 50 years old should go back to work for the good of the economy, because he’d “rather die than kill the country.”
But some of the president’s strongest supporters, including Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, have publicly pushed back on Trump. They seem to have made a different political calculation.
Graham said on Monday that he’d listen to healthcare professionals, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious-disease specialist who’s helping lead the government’s coronavirus response effort, rather than “political punditry.”
“There is no functioning economy unless we control the virus,” Graham said.
The senator later told The Atlantic that there were also political concerns with ignoring the science.
“If his judgment is seen as having extended the disease — and taking the foot off the throat of the disease — at a time when we’re making progress, then, yeah, it would put him in great jeopardy,” Graham said of Trump.
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