A Battle Between Lives and Livelihoods

The United States and the world have faced tough times before—deep recessions, stock-market crashes, and pandemics. But never the whole world all at once.

I recently recalled the first time my father, an Eighth Air Force B-17 and B-24 pilot in World War II, and I first watched the terrific movie Memphis Belle, very loosely based on a true story of a particularly harrowing bomber mission. Dad explained that almost all of the things that happened to that B-17 really did happen, just not all to one crew on one mission. Hollywood had taken some license to make it more exciting. Well, this is happening all at once, and it is beginning to resemble more of a horror movie than an adventure.

Monday afternoon, pollster Bill McInturff sent a brief email to clients and friends, later posted on his website, with impressions gleaned from a considerable amount of polling over the past few days. McInturff, one of the best in the business, and his firm Public Opinion Strategies are the Republican half of the team that conducts the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

When the NBC/WSJ poll was conducted 10 days ago (March 11-13), McInturff said, “it turned out to be the last moment before widespread school and other closures hit.” He added: “Do not underestimate the difference a week plus meant in terms of people’s response to the virus.”

Ten days ago, when asked the impact of the coronavirus on them and their families, only 8 percent responded that the virus had changed things in “a very major way.” Eighteen percent said it affected them in “a fairly major way.” A full 74 percent, however, said it had only changed things in a small way or in no way at all.

Across multiple polls, said McInturff, “this past week showed remarkably different data. While we cannot directly compare a national track to the data around the country last week,” several broad trends emerged that showed COVID-19 “now significantly impact[ing] day-to-day lives.” The number who said the virus now had a “significant or major impact” had shot up to the upper 50s-lower 60s range.

In a separate analysis of the NBC/WSJ poll, Peter Hart of the Democratic team said the impact as of last week had been “minimal” and that the threat was “remote and not scary.” Hart said “voters described it as almost a time out, or a detour on the highway of life.”

Again, things have changed. Monmouth University released a poll Monday afternoon of 851 adults conducted March 18 to 22 (Wednesday through Sunday). The survey asked an open-ended question: “What is the biggest concern facing your family now?” Without any prompting, 57 percent replied the coronavirus. Seventy percent said they were either very concerned or somewhat concerned that a member of their family would contract the virus. That is a lot of movement since the NBC/WSJ poll.

But as much as voters’ views of the coronavirus and the threat it represents have changed in recent days, some things have not changed much at all. President Trump’s job-approval rating went up 2 points from 44 to 46 percent; his disapproval dropped by the same amount, from 50 to 48 percent. This change is minimal, well within the poll’s 3.4-point margin of error, but it does put the lie to any suggestion that Trump’s numbers are in free fall. Among Republicans, 91 percent approve to only 5 percent who disapprove. Forty-four percent of independents approved to 48 percent who disapproved, and just 11 percent of Democrats approved compared to 85 percent who disapproved.

As this column argued last week, hyper-partisanship is anchoring attitudes towards Trump. A relatively small tilt among independents, and a slight registration advantage for Democrats explain his poll deficits.

People should never put too much weight on any one poll, but watch if other reliable surveys indicate that Trump is indeed enjoying a real, if slight, uptick.

Any day now, Congress will finally settle on a coronavirus emergency package, a very big one, likely the first of many. Each party seems to think they have some leverage over the other, hence some pretty tough negotiations and delays for something that the average American thinks can be done in minutes. But we haven’t seen any fighting compared to what is next.

A really big battle is brewing between two really important considerations. On one side is the nation’s health security, meaning mandatory sheltering in place and severe limits on business activity to beat back this scourge. The longer a significant share of the population is hunkered down, as most of us are today, the better our chances of flattening the proverbial curve with which we are suddenly so familiar.

While the clamp is on tight, lives are saved but livelihoods killed. A May 2019 Federal Reserve Board study found that only 61 percent of Americans had $400 or more available in cash, savings, or credit that they could tap into for an unexpected emergency. The hit to a lot of these people’s incomes will far exceed $400, and money from the emergency stimulus package can’t get to them too soon. Others have spent their lives building up a small business. Under even the best-case scenarios, many of these businesses will go under. One cruel fact of economics is that recessions have a cleansing effect, eliminating businesses on the margins. The longer you go between recessions, the greater the number of vulnerable businesses are out there. That’s yet another reason why this downturn is going to be so devastating.

The contrasts will be startling. If they decide to make a fourth sequel to Jaws, there are a few elected officials seemingly trying out for the part of the Amity Island mayor who wouldn’t close the island’s beaches on Fourth of July weekend, fearful of hurting those depending upon tourists from the mainland.

But anyone who loses a loved one because of a resurgence in the coronavirus this fall is not likely to accept excuses that economic activity was more important than a life lost.

These are decisions that I wouldn’t want to make.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on March 24, 2020