The last three and a half years in politics have been marked by two seemingly incompatible things: chaos and consistency. Almost every week, an event, issue or moment looks to upend our current political stasis or rattle the economy. But until now, nothing, not a government shutdown, nor impeachment, nor a tempestuous tweet, had been enough to spook the markets or alter opinions of this president. Meanwhile, our media cycle and attention spans have gotten shorter and shorter, which only serves to lessen the long-term repercussions of big events.
Coronavirus, however, may be our first truly disruptive event in this so-called disruptive era.
The markets are obviously spooked. The question is how long it will take for consumers to be worried as well. A February Gallup poll found economic confidence at its highest point in 20 years. But, a couple of weeks of canceled sporting events, school functions and even trips to the local mall will be enough to dampen it. And it is likely the economic impact lasts longer than our 'social distancing.' Lost income and retirement savings can't be made up immediately.
The earliest polling finds, not surprisingly, American opinions of the issue — and how the president is handling it — are divided among familiar partisan lines.
A Quinnipiac poll taken March 5-8 found that 43 percent approve of the job Trump is doing in responding to the coronavirus, while 49 percent disapprove: 87 percent of Republicans approve, 83 percent of Democrats disapprove, and 50 percent of independents disapprove.
A USAToday/Ipsos poll found that "while 72% of Republicans trusted Trump, for instance, just 14% of Democrats agreed. And while 56% of Democrats trusted the news media, just 23% of Republicans agreed."
This continued and unwavering support from Republicans is what has prevented Trump from falling into a political tailspin during previous moments of trouble. The assumption is that it will continue to hold. But, also critical to Trump's political success is keeping independent voters from totally bailing on him. The longer the crisis continues, the more the spotlight is trained on what these voters see as his biggest weaknesses. For example, the March Quinnipiac poll found that just 33 percent of Americans — including just 22 percent of independents, find the president to be honest. Only 42 percent think he has good leadership skills. When asked who would be better in a crisis, 56 percent of voters, including almost two-thirds of independents, picked Joe Biden. In other words, Trump has no well of good-will to dip into at a time of crisis.
Lots of GOP strategists point to President Bush's mishandling of Hurricane Katrina as the tipping point for the 2006 election. Voters were already turning sour on the war and the administration's handling of it. The bumbling response to the hurricane and its aftermath hardened those views. The week before the hurricane, Bush's job approval rating in Gallup polling was 45 percent. By early October, it was 39 percent. Bush never hit a 45 percent approval rating again in Gallup polls throughout 2006.
Trump's polarized support structure means that even if he is successful, partisans on the other side will never give him credit. Conservative media voices love to focus on this downside of Trump's governing style ("The establishment wants him to fail!!" "Nothing he can do will satisfy the Lame Stream Media!"), while conveniently ignoring the fact that the president's behavior is also responsible for the reaction he's getting. Plus, the idea that he can never "win" isn't true. While his job ratings for 'honesty' and 'leadership' are in the 30s and low 40s, he has a 54 percent job approval rating on handling the economy. In fact, almost two-thirds of independents give him positive marks on how he has managed the economy. But, they also think he's terrible in a crisis. And, of course, if this health crisis becomes an economic crisis, these job approval ratings on the economy are also likely to slip.
The biggest unknown, of course, is just how long this current crunch will last? Will we still be talking about the coronavirus this summer? Or will this have been a painful but short-lived blip? The last four years have taught us to think that there's no such thing as long-term consequences. But, if we have learned anything else over these four years, it's that assumptions we've made (even if they are only three years old) may not hold in this fast-changing moment. This is even more true when it concerns the personal health, safety and economic well-being of millions of people.