President Donald Trump’s gamble on reopening the United States economy in the face of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the nation has backfired, leaving the president in a losing political position just four months before the US election.
Trump cast himself as the cheerleader-in-chief and has pushed US governors and business leaders to reopen the economy with the hope that the virus would wane. That has not happened.
Now, infection rates are exploding throughout the South and West of the US, and the virus is returning to states that had previously peaked. Trump has refused to acknowledge the rising risks, claiming case numbers are a function of more widely available testing and instead pushed to reopen schools beginning as soon as next month.
The talk of reopening schools, as the virus resurges, has unsettled parents and families nationwide and left governors and local officials in the difficult position of having to make plans without adequate resources or guidance.
“Trump has clearly lost his footing,” said Shibley Telhami, a pollster and professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland.
“He is losing the narrative. If you can’t get the pandemic under control, you can’t reopen the economy,” Telhami told Al Jazeera.
Trump’s handling of the pandemic is not winning over the American public. Opinion polls suggest Trump is trailing his Democratic opponent Joe Biden by an average of more than eight percentage points, according to RealClearPolitics.com. Biden leads in the key states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Florida that are likely to turn the election.
“The president has a governing problem that has become a political problem,” said Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“He has failed to stop the spread of this disease. The United States is the worst in the world among developed nations,” Kondik told Al Jazeera.
Biden leads Trump in support among Americans by 49 percent to 40 percent, according to a survey of 1,500 adults by The Economist/YouGov taken July 12-14.
“If his poll numbers look this way on election day, he is almost certainly going to lose,” Kondik said.
Indeed, for weeks Republicans who could lose control of both the White House and the US Congress to Democrats have been expressing alarm at the president’s weakened political position.
After low turnout at a much-hyped Trump rally in Oklahoma, Karl Rove, the Republican mastermind behind former President George W Bush’s winning campaigns, told the television outlet Fox News that the president needed to hit the “reset” button on his campaign.
In late June, after Black Lives Matter protests had rocked the US, the number 2 Republican in the Senate, John Thune, called for a “change in tone” from the president.
Trump is losing independent voters and needs to deliver a new “message that deals with substance and policy”, Thune told reporters at the US Capitol.
But the president has stayed his course, appealing to his base of partisan Republican voters, advancing a tough “law and order” posture towards the protests, and escalating tensions with China, which he blames for the virus’s spread.
The president has abandoned his once-daily briefings on the coronavirus, sidelined government scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and waged a whisper campaign of criticism of Dr Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert at the National Institutes of Health.
Fauci has been a leading voice for social distancing and shutdown measures to control the spread of the virus. He called the White House’s attempts to discredit him “bizarre” and in a series of interviews this week, called for stepping back from reopening the economy.
“Trump continues to be, frankly, irrationally indifferent to the magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic,” said James Henson, a politics professor at the University of Texas.
“The Trump administration and the Trump campaign are gambling that in states like Texas – where the pandemic is just burning out of control – he’ll survive it,” Henson told Al Jazeera.
In a speech at the White House on July 14, Trump gave a preview of the campaign ahead by claiming the number of deaths from the virus are going down. The president drew distinctions between himself and Biden on rebuilding the economy, stopping immigration and getting tough on China.
But his performance was rambling, many of his claims were not backed up by facts and his use of a ceremonial space at the White House to deliver a partisan speech drew criticism.
The next day, Trump replaced his campaign manager Brad Parscale, who had delivered his unlikely 2016 win, with Bill Stepien, a political consultant and former operative for former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
Whether Stepien can reinvent Trump’s campaign is an open question. Trump has been forced to cancel planned events in New Hampshire and Alabama because of the virus.
“Trump’s political position is precarious at this point,” said James Lance Taylor, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco.
“He has to run on the pandemic response and the economy, but he can’t. His response to the crisis has been inept,” Taylor told Al Jazeera.
“He’s going to have to pull a rabbit out of the hat,” he said.
Attendance at the Republican National Convention, scheduled for August 24-27 in Jacksonville, Florida – where Republicans will formally nominate Trump for a second four-year term – will be curtailed as the state suffers the US’s worst outbreak.
And without firm national leadership coming from the president on the pandemic, state and local leaders have been left to devise their own strategies leading to a patchwork of policies and uncertainty about what the future holds.
“The president has made so many bad executive decisions,” said House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the number 1 Democrat in Congress.
“He is like the man who refuses to ask for directions,” Pelosi said.
“The answers are there. The scientists have the answers. The answers are testing, tracing and treating,” Pelosi told reporters at a news conference on Thursday.