Swing State Pres

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

BTRTN: Trump Leading From (His) Behind

Tom takes a look at how Trump is faring, by the numbers, in his handling of the coronavirus crisis.    

You may recall back in the midst of the crisis in Libya in 2011, an unfortunate phrase was used by an Obama aid to describe American efforts to orchestrate a proper response.  At that time, there was a need for action, but also a strong strategic desire to have that action perceived as being led by others, not by America.  So Hillary Clinton worked to cajole others to step up, and “leading from behind” was born.

Well, not exactly “born.”  As Ryan Lizza pointed out in a New Yorker piece on the subject back then (and he cited another author in finding the quote), Nelson Mandela used the phrase to describe a selfless leadership style.

“It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”

But gleeful conservatives made fun of the rather dubious phrase, charging Obama with weakness, and essentially claiming that he was showing no leadership at all.

Who has the real power in the United States: behind the dispute ...Donald Trump, in the coronavirus crisis, is certainly not “leading from behind” in the Obama/Mandela sense.  Not at all.  In his endless quest to claim credit and avoid blame in a highly uncertain and volatile crisis, he has veered between claiming absolute authority to ducking the powers he could rightfully wield.   He is not looking to “take the front line where there is danger.”  Indeed, he has truly attempted to do just the opposite – stick the governors with making the hard decisions on when to close down their states, while trying initially to take full credit for the presumably welcome decision to open them up again.  Of course, once he realized the political realities of re-opening – that he could not constitutionally effect unilateral openings under the U.S. Constitution, and that it was a decision in and of itself fraught with peril – he backed off once again.

This is not even “leading from behind.”  This is leading from his behind.  The muddled mishmash of “I’m in charge” and “it’s their show,” the equivocation of the seriousness of the crisis, the slowness to act, the distortion of facts around testing and supplies, the evasion of responsibility, the endless search for someone, some entity, some country to blame, the neediness for praise, the unwillingness to use the powers of the office, the failure to set a good example, and the ultimate failure to rally and unify America in the cause to overcome the threat – this is all about as far from “leadership” as you could possibly conceive. 

Almost anyone who has witnessed real leadership in any setting, large or small, can readily see this.  Anyone who has read a paragraph about Lincoln during the Civil War, Churchill and the Blitz, FDR and the Depression and World War II, JFK and the Cuban missile crisis, knows well that the judgment of history hangs heavily on the navigation of these crises.  To even attempt to compare Trump’s pathetically underwhelming “leadership” to those titans is not worthy of the very few brainwaves it would take to reach a conclusion.

Lives have been lost.  There can be little doubt that if Trump had acted decisively in February to rally the nation to the magnitude of the crisis, endlessly exhorted proper hygiene and social distancing, worked hard to convince the governors to take aggressive shutdown steps, and commandeered those segments of industry required to meet the materials and testing shortfalls, tens of thousands of lives would have been saved.  Not to mention those famous federal stockpiles had been filled to capacity at some point in his three years at the helm.  Closing China, his favorite talking point, hardly amounts to an integrated strategy to fend off and control the obvious threat.

But the court of public opinion is never straightforward.  Nothing in Trump’s entire presidency has truly broken through to either convince his followers that he is wrong, nor his opponents that he is right.  Is there any sign of that now, now that the stakes are so high, the life and death nature of the battle so clear, now that this scourge has affected nearly everyone in the entire country in meaningful way?

Let’s take a look at the numbers.  The short answer is this:  he’s holding up on the broadest of gauges, not flying as he should be in a time of crisis (plenty of precedents) but holding ground.  But…there are clear cracks in the wall of support.

On the most basic measures, the evaluations of Trump’s performance are falling along standard partisan lines.  On the direct question of how he is handling of coronavirus crisis, Trump, from a starting point in the low 40% range when he was in his “denial” phase, enjoyed a brief when he period of improvement in mid-March.  This positive bump coincided with his March 17 press conference appeared to be taking the virus seriously for the first time, somberly announcing social distancing guidelines.  It almost immediately evaporated when Trump reversed course just days later and began talking about opening up the country according to his “beautiful” timeline, with the “pews filled” on Easter Sunday and the U.S. economy “rarin’ to go.”

TRUMP HANDLING OF CORONAVIRUS
Week ending
3/7
3/14
3/21
3/28
4/4
4/11
4/18
Approve
41
44
50
51
45
46
47
Disapprove
48
51
45
45
47
51
51
Net
-7
-7
5
6
-2
-5
-4

Morning Consult has a nice chart that captures this rise and fall quite clearly, and their data tracks reasonably well with the aggregated polls.

Image

Note that Trump did not get the same bump in his actual approval rating (below), at least not to the same degree and on the same timeframe.  It has lifted by a few points, to over 45% for the very first time since the earliest days of his presidency. 

TRUMP APPROVAL RATING
Week ending
3/7
3/14
3/21
3/28
4/4
4/11
4/18
Approve
44
44
44
46
47
44
46
Disapprove
54
53
54
52
51
54
52
Net
-10
-9
-10
-6
-4
-10
-6

So, he received a little bump and has not taken any dives.  But it has to be clear that it is far more typical for a nation to rally behind a president, with near universal support in a crisis, assuming the president makes the right leadership moves.  You don’t have to be Lincoln or FDR to meet this standard.  George H.W. Bush’s approval rating improved from the mid-50’s to as high as 86% (according to Gallup) in the run up and aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991.  George W. Bush’s approval rating rose from 51% to 86% (also Gallup) from the week before to the week after 9/11 in 2001.  JFK’s jumped from the low 60’s to 76% after his performance in averting a nuclear showdown in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.  Barack Obama came into office in the midst of the Great Recession, and instantly converted Bush 43’s low approval rating (mid-30’s) into the 65% level he held in the early months of his presidency as he saved the country from potential economic ruin.

These were surely our country’s most threatening crises since World War II (the Vietnam War did not really have a single crisis flash point).  One might argue that these presidents operated in less polarized times, and that would be accurate, enabling higher levels of support.  On the other hand, each president received substantial bi-partisan praise for their handling of these events (in Bush 43’s case, at least until he shifted gears with the Iraq War).  And, to be clear, none of them were as divisive as Trump, and each, as noted, had a well of cross-party support to draw on as their crisis unfolded, as each came to their crisis with approval ratings over 50%.

Based on the data, one can reasonably (and easily) conclude that Trump – by virtue of both his underwhelming performance and his divisive approach to the crisis – has not done the same.  The paltry bump he has managed has not even taken him to the 50% mark.  He hasn’t lost ground – it appears – but he has certainly squandered an opportunity.   

But the actual picture is somewhat worse than that for Trump, when you dig a bit deeper.  Here are a few data points worth noting.

A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll reveals that Trump is essentially last on the list of trusted sources for coronavirus information, well behind the CDC, their own state governors, Dr. Anthony Fauci and New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo.  What is striking here is the 36% number, which is well below the 44% approval rating NBC/WSJ found in this same poll.  Trump may have retained the support of his base, but a portion of them no longer believe him when discussing the epochal crisis of our time.  They are getting their direction from others, and that is eye-opening. 

TRUST FOR CORONAVIRUS INFORMATION

Trust
Don't Trust
Net
CDC
69%
13%
+ 56 pp
Fauci
60%
8%
+ 52 pp
Your state governor
66%
20%
+ 46 pp
Cuomo
46%
18%
+ 28 pp
Pence
35%
41%
 - 6 pp
Trump
36%
52%
- 16 pp

Also of considerable note is an even more damning finding from a Pew survey.  Trump has been desperately fighting to re-shape the perception (and reality) that he was late to take the coronavirus seriously.  In press conference after press conference, he relies on a single action – stopping in-bound flights from China on January 30 – as evidence of his quick response.  But the lack of an overall strategy, the testing and materials shortages, the lack of leadership on social distancing or shutdown throughout February and into March are all clearly hurting him.  His efforts to rewrite history are simply not working, as evidenced by this Pew poll.

According to the poll, conducted last week, 65% of Americans believe Trump’s response to the coronavirus crisis was “too slow.”  This is a damning figure that shows evidence of deep cracks among his base on a crucial measure.  One-third of all Republicans believe he was too slow.  On most measures regarding Trump, more like 90% of the GOP is behind him.  Here, only 66%.  (This echoed a similar question from the NBC/WSJ poll).

Most Americans say Trump’s early response to coronavirus was too slow

Once this devastating perception is married with estimates of how many lives could have been saved with a more urgent response – sure to be calculated in due course, before the election – this will be the cudgel Biden and the Democrats will wield against Trump down the stretch, with plenty of supportive facts and clips.

Finally, the American voter has been introduced far more broadly to a powerful set of politicians that do not normally see the national spotlight – our nation’s governors.  Trump himself has perhaps unwittingly elevated the governors to the limelight by his on again/off again assertions about their relative power to his; Andrew Cuomo’s masterful daily press conferences have been must-see-TV for many across the country; and Trump has decided at various times to attack governors he perceives as not paying him enough homage for his efforts.  Notable among the latter has been first-term Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who has faced a serious coronavirus outbreak in Detroit and has responded in winning fashion.  So winning, in fact, that she has quickly ascended to Joe Biden’s short list of potential vice-presidents.

Michigan is, of course, the ultimate battleground state, a reliably blue state for decades (since 1988) until Trump flipped it in 2016, one of the six flips that gave him upset victory (the others were Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.)  These are, of course, the states Joe Biden will target to flip back in November.  This is not a state to fumble away.

And yet, the polls show that Michigan residents approve of Whitmer’s handling of the coronavirus far more than Trump’s.  Attacking a popular governor (she has a 60% approval rating in her state) may not be the smartest idea. 

APPROVAL OF HANDLING CORONAVIRUS CRISIS

Approve
Disapprove
Whitmer
57%
37%
Trump
44%
50%

Finally, Trump, of course, has been encouraging states to re-open for business quickly, even supporting protesters chafing against self-quarantining.  But the American people are not with him.

According to a recent Huffington Post/YouGov poll from last week, Americans support statewide stay-at-home orders by a whopping 81%/8% margin.  And another recent poll, from YouGov/Yahoo, finds that only 22% of Americans support the protesters (while 60% oppose).  Even Republicans oppose those protester by a 47/36 margin.

In short, Trump has not managed to get America behind him on the crisis.  And while he has held his ground (albeit, in the unenviable 45% range) on overall job approval, his handling of the coronavirus crisis reveals a number of crucial areas in handling the crisis where he has sunk below the 40% “floor” that has characterized his presidency.



2 comments:

  1. Great post with some poll numbers I had yet to hear about. It's a bit frustrating that Trump's base is still supporting him as much as in the past, but I think these other numbers do a lot to suggest that his support mostly stems from his ability to "own the libs" more than anything else. They clearly don't think he's a great leader right now.

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  2. 1. Trump's "action" "Closing China, his favorite talking point, hardly amounts to an integrated strategy to fend off and control the obvious threat." Beyond that, it wasn't "closing China:" It was limiting planes from China by directing them to a narrower set of airports, banning non-citizens who had traveled in Wuhan's province in the previous 14 days (and slightly later, who traveled in China at all), and telling travelling citizens, green-card holders, and their family members to "self-isolate" for 14 days. As best I can tell, there was no enforcement or monitoring once the people got out of the airport. And I can find NO mention of limiting airline crew who flew in. When the "ban" was extended to Europe's mainland, the same loopholes existed, with substantial questions about even the extent of the warning to US citizens.
    Those exceptions are going to be talking points about Trump's competence.

    2. Election polling (in my opinion) is better when it offers the comparison of candidates to people. On the COVID-19 issue, Trump's got trouble.

    NBC/WSJ poll "shows 50 percent say Trump is handling the situation well now and 44 percent approve of his handling of it [overall], but when given a choice between him and Joe Biden to handle the situation, just 36 percent choose Trump — as compared with 45 percent who choose Biden. When it comes more broadly to who people trust to handled a crisis, Biden holds another nine-point lead, 47 to 38."

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