WASHINGTON — At a campaign rally the night before Super Tuesday in early March, President Trump had plenty to brag about.
“Jobs are booming in our country, incomes are soaring, poverty has plummeted, confidence is surging,” Trump said, ticking off the key bullet points in his argument for reelection before summarily dismissing the threat that the coronavirus could pose to the United States. “We know what we’re doing,” Trump declared.
Former vice president Joe Biden was having a good night, too. Some of his top former rivals had just endorsed him and turbocharged his campaign toward a slew of primary victories that made him the front-runner for the Democratic nomination.
But one month later, the country has turned upside down. The coronavirus outbreak has killed thousands of people and the attempt to slow its ravages has ground the economy to a standstill, throwing millions of Americans out of work; nearly all the stock market and employment gains of the Trump era have been erased, as if overnight.
It has also upended the battle for the White House to a degree with little precedent, confronting Trump with a life-or-death test of his governance while Biden, his likely opponent, is relegated to the sidelines.
The election is now likely to turn on Trump’s handling of the crisis, according to political strategists, which means that he has the spotlight to himself. But he could also, if he stumbles, be his own biggest opponent as he swaps raucous campaign rallies for a series of increasingly somber daily briefings in which the president, as is his pattern, often struggles to get the facts right.
“Crises are make-or-break moments for elected officials,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “How they’ve handled the crisis has overshadowed almost everything they’ve done.”
That has left Biden, who is campaigning mostly from his home in Wilmington, Del., laboring to find ways to draw attention and raise money without the trappings of a normal campaign. But he and his allies spy an opportunity to hold the president to account — and, some analysts say, Biden could gain from the disproportionate focus on Trump.
“If ever there were a year when you might benefit from being invisible, it’s this one,” said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Biden’s best chance of beating President Trump is being seen in some fashion — maybe just subliminally — on the ballot as Joseph ‘Not Trump’ Biden.”
In recent weeks, Trump has placed himself squarely at the center of the crisis, declaring he is a “wartime” president and often speaking at length at daily briefings on the pandemic. That has given him an unfiltered and widely seen platform where he can depict himself as a leader in command, which may be why his approval has ticked up slightly to 47 percent, the highest point of his presidency, according to an average tracked by Real Clear Politics.
But the crisis has also opened him up to new levels of scrutiny as the public has watched his messaging shift by the day. As medical workers plead for crucial equipment and tests, Trump has incorrectly compared the hazards of the disease to the seasonal flu, suggested the social distancing guidelines that have shut down swaths of the economy might be able to end earlier than is scientifically advisable, and sought to blame others for the country’s halting response to the crisis.
“Governors are going to have issues, and going out and attacking them doesn’t help the country," said Doug Heye, a Republican consultant, who said Biden needs to hold back for now but acknowledged there could be opportunities for him to criticize Trump’s response “down the road.”
Based on their internal polling, Trump’s campaign believes that most Americans approve of his handling of the crisis. But his administration has already been criticized for downplaying the scale of the disaster and failing to take early steps that could have contained it, and it will probably become more difficult for him to depict his efforts as victorious as the death toll rises.
“I don’t know if being the orchestrator of this each day is such a huge advantage if you’re facing such huge issues and a health crisis, and the economy’s going to get worse,” said Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic pollster.
Several recent polls show Biden with a narrow lead over Trump in head-to-head matchups, but there is much that can change about a race that is still in flux — including the delaying of the Democratic convention, announced last week — and the continued presence of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont in the race could further constrain Biden’s standing as his party’s clear choice.
A key question will be whether Americans’ views on the pandemic — and voters’ perceptions about Trump’s response — can break through the nation’s deep political polarization. Will those who back him do so no matter what, as has been the trend in his presidency? Likewise, with those who doubt or loathe him? A survey of 3,000 people in late March found Democrats were more likely to hold him responsible than Republicans, and that a person’s political party affiliation could better predict a person’s attitudes than their age, class, or location.
One day last week offered an example of the perils of the moment for both Trump and Biden. On Tuesday, Trump stood somberly in front of a series of slides projecting the pandemic’s possible death toll, which he said could fall between 100,000 — a figure he called “a very low number” — and 240,000 people if strict containment measures are followed.
“We’re going to go through a very rough two weeks,” he said, offering an unusually grim reckoning with the crisis that will probably define his presidency.
The same day, Biden did an interview with CNN from the humbling environs of his basement — a far cry from the victory speeches he would give and fund-raisers he would probably be attending had the coronavirus outbreak not postponed primary elections and frozen much of the primary in place.
“He should act like a wartime president; he should have someone else in charge with him, making sure all these things get implemented,” Biden said, when asked about Trump. “It’s not like we didn’t know this was coming.”
Biden had premised much of his primary campaign on the idea that Trump is unfit for office and that, as a deeply experienced moderate voice, he was uniquely positioned to beat him. But one challenge now has been finding the right tone for his criticisms of the president during a moment of national crisis.
On Sunday, when NBC anchor Chuck Todd asked him if Trump had “blood” on his hands for coronavirus deaths, Biden said the question was “a little too harsh.”
That has generated frustration from some progressives, who are worried Biden and other Democrats are missing the chance to pursue a stronger case against a president they believe has fundamentally mishandled a life-or-death issue.
“Our side needs to be crystal clear that every action we’re taking is cleaning up Trump’s original sin of ignoring this impending crisis in January and February,” said Adam Green, of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “Every time we’re asked if Trump has blood on his hands, our answer needs to be unequivocally yes.”
But other Democrats say Biden is better off striking a restrained tone and relying on his outside allies to lay into Trump, to avoid the appearance of trying to benefit from the crisis.
“You don’t necessarily want to be in full-on attack against the commander in chief, as flawed as this commander in chief may be,” said Mark Longabaugh, a former adviser to Sanders.
Two top Democratic super PACS — Unite the Country and American Bridge — have formed a partnership to make the case for Biden. The groups had raised $70 million as of March 28, and leaders said they planned to use those funds to hold Trump accountable for his slow coronavirus response.
Still, Biden’s aides have been working to restructure all aspects of his campaign and message. The former vice president has ramped up his media interviews, making 14 media appearances over the last 12 days; hosted digital campaign events; and launched a podcast, and his supporters say he has an opportunity to contrast himself with Trump by showing more empathy during the crisis. Biden declined a request for an interview for this story.
“People are looking for their leader to communicate with them from a sense of understanding,” said Malcom Kenyatta, a state representative from Pennsylvania who organized a virtual happy hour with Biden last week.
But his earliest forays into digital campaigning were plagued with malfunctions — something his younger, digitally savvy supporters have scrambled to help fix — and Biden has struggled to break through the tidal wave of coronavirus-related news. Aimee Allison, the founder of the progressive group She the People, said Biden should be mounting a daily response to Trump.
“A lot of us want to see Biden visible in a different way,” she said.
Ali Pardo, a Trump campaign aide, says their operation has an advantage over Biden “because of our early and ongoing investment in data and technological infrastructure that began in 2015.” The campaign has not let up its attacks on Biden, but those are hardly breaking through, either.
While the focus on the crisis “means that Biden is not getting a ton of political oxygen, it also means he is not taking incoming fire,” said Amy Walter, the national editor of the Cook Political Report. “It is going to come. But the fact that he can come into the summer with decent favorable ratings would be good news for him.”