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Larry Donnelly: The US is polarised over Trump's handling of Covid-19, but Biden has also failed to inspire voters

Larry Donnelly says wildcards like Covid-19 will shape the Trump vs Biden race

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

HOW IS DONALD Trump doing with respect to Covid-19?  As usual, it depends on who you listen to. His critics in the media and in the political opposition say he is “shameless,” “unable to express compassion and empathy,” “full of sh*t” and that “he’s an idiot.” 

A typically unfavourable Boston Globe editorial argues that, because of his “initial prevarication” and “subsequent missteps” in dealing with the crisis, “the president has blood on his hands.”

On the flip side, allies and acolytes of his administration praise his “leadership,” say “he’s been so attentive to the scientific literature and the data. His ability to analyse and integrate data that comes out of his long history in business has been a real benefit during these discussions about medical issues” and commend his “boundless energy and willingness to solve problems.”

The polarised US

The totally divergent takes on how he has responded to the coronavirus are undeniably coloured both by polarised perspectives on his presidency and the unwavering loyalty Trump demands from those around him.  More instructive, politically speaking, are the views of that relatively small segment of the American population who neither love nor loathe the president.

A Pennsylvania voter, who did not back the president in 2016 and had previously been leaning toward supporting Joe Biden, said in a New York Times interview this week that “I think he’s handled it pretty well…I think he’s tried to keep people calm…I know some people don’t think he’s taking it seriously, but I think he’s doing the best with the information he had.”  An Iowa resident agreed, noting that “at some point, we’ve got to get behind this together.”

But one Florida man, who had been solidly in Trump’s corner, has changed his mind.  “The biggest pivot point for me was when he mentioned the cruise liner which held Americans, which he didn’t want to dock in California because he didn’t want the numbers to go up…These were Americans and they were sick.”

Their comments are reflective of what the polling shows.  It is true that Trump’s approval numbers, based on aggregated surveys, are as high as they have ever been.  Yet his bump does not approach those for the French president and Italian prime minister. 47% of Americans still think that not enough is being done to combat the virus.  If some of the worst-case projections as to the number of cases and casualties are borne out, that figure will rise considerably.

An unwieldy Trump, a tired Biden

Additionally, Trump’s unpredictable daily press briefings, which are widely watched – he tweets that “the ‘Ratings’ of my News Conferences etc. are so high, ‘Bachelor final, Monday Night Football type numbers’” – and in which he launches attacks on journalists for asking perfectly reasonable questions, will help confirm the doubts of many about his temperament.  Car crash television has always garnered high ratings. In fairness, Trump does finally seem to be more serious about and cognisant of the threat now, though.

Where has the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, been in the midst of all this?  In short, he has been largely out of sight. He has surfaced in media appearances and statements emanating from the basement of his home in Delaware.  Unfortunately, and to put it mildly, these have not benefitted him politically.

Widely circulated videos show him losing his train of thought in the middle of sentences and fumbling over words, even while looking at notes.  His foes assert that this is more proof of a man experiencing cognitive decline; his adherents state publicly that this has never been a strong point for Biden, who had to overcome a stutter as a young man.  There is certainly worry in some quarters, however, about his poor performances. And there is consequent speculation about New York Governor Andrew Cuomo being parachuted in to take his place at the top of the ticket whenever the Democratic National Convention actually does transpire.

This is a remote possibility.  Yet in these unprecedented days, it does resuscitate the question of Joe Biden’s capacity to do battle with the incumbent, who is just a few calendar years younger but is evidently indefatigable.  Trump’s repeated tweets of Biden’s gaffes suggest that he will focus on it during the campaign. In this vein, it is worth bearing in mind that Trump plays the game by different rules than the rest.

Before one can even attempt a traditional political analysis of the contest between the two of them for the White House, then, there are these two wildcards: the fallout from Covid-19 and the visible ageing of Joe Biden.

The former could either rebound on or re-elect the president, in the event that things don’t get that bad and the electorate rallies around a “victorious” commander-in-chief.  The latter could doom the Democrat’s candidacy or could offer him a chance to write his own redemption story, which Americans instinctively love and which he has already hinted at in speeches: “to all of those who have been knocked down, counted out, left behind, this is your campaign.”

The race continues, for now

Beyond the wildcards and assuming some sense of normalcy is restored by autumn, the presidential election should again be decided by the same handful of states.  Democrats are buoyed by how well Joe Biden did in important counties and with key demographics against Bernie Sanders – as compared to Hillary Clinton in 2016 – in Michigan and elsewhere.  The conservative Republican base will be fired up and the fact is that most presidents do get a second term.

I’d venture that two intertwined questions may be dispositive in the end.  How will President Trump counter the reality that Joe Biden is vastly more popular than Mrs Clinton, especially, for example, in Pennsylvania? 

How will Biden convince moderates and independents in the crucial Electoral College states to keep within or return to the Democratic fold, when the party’s platform on cultural issues is dictated by people on the coasts they abhor and have next to nothing in common with? 

Nonetheless, the two wildcards, Covid-19 and Joe Biden’s vulnerabilities make for a very murky picture seven months before the United States opts whether to stay the course or to chart a new one.  Let’s all hope that we remain healthy in the meantime and that our world is rid of this pandemic by November.    

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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