But Trump, unlike Bush after 9/11 or European leaders today, seems to have burned through that goodwill at a high speed. He is now at or below the support he enjoyed before coronavirus arrived, a President who – unusually for the US – has never exceeded 50% public approval during his time in office.
While Trump’s four-in-ten approval ratings might seem enviable for leaders of parliamentary systems, it spells trouble for a President less than six months from election in a two-party system.
In Politics, Democrats Play Nice, Republicans Play Hardball?
As the virus raged, Democrats wrapped up their campaign to choose a challenger to President Trump with so little fuss that the New York Timesheadlined an article "Hello, what’s this? The Dems aren’t in disarray." After a yearlong campaign that featured more than 20 candidates, angry debate performances and vicious social media attacks, former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive nominee, and Senator Bernie Sanders, his last challenger, declared that they really like each other and set up half-a-dozen committees to harmonize their positions. (Foreign and security policy were not among the topics the committees will consider.)
Biden also reached out to President Trump for a phone call to discuss the response to the virus – a surreal counterpoint to the nasty back-and-forth between Trump and Democratic state governors about medical supplies and policies.
And Biden pulled in – at last – an endorsement from former President Obama, who remains immensely popular among Democrats. With these three steps – and his pledge to nominate a woman as his vice presidential running mate - Biden signaled his ambition to run as an anti-polarizer, a big-tent unifier across ideology, gender, and race.
President Trump and many Republican officials, however, signaled the intention to do just the opposite, pursuing and even speeding up a course in which the Administration keeps a tight hold on Trump’s most enthusiastic core supporters and dispenses desired outcomes to key business and security groups within the Republican party without ever attaining majority popularity.
The Trump Administration has pushed ahead with controversial regulatory moves, from lowering national fuel efficiency standards for automobiles to easing rules which restrict emission of toxic pollutants. No one is surprised at these deregulatory moves, which had been conservative goals for some years and telegraphed by the Administration. But on top of them came more unusual changes – suspending routine food safety inspections, for example. Government departments issued interpretations of the most recent economic stimulus package passed with a bipartisan vote in Congress that allowed banks to intercept citizens’ relief check and apply them to old debts, and opened small business loan programs to billion-dollar hedge funds.
Trump’s transactional, reward-my-friends and punish-my-enemies approach is familiar to the international partners who have dealt with him over NATO contributions, trade and other issues. As much of a surprise as it has been to see this treatment meted out to US treaty allies over the last three years, it was an even greater shock to see it done to US governors who came to Trump seeking medical supplies and protective equipment for their states. Democratic governors in New York, Michigan, Colorado and Kansas have complained of not getting medical equipment they requested – or actually having supplies they had purchased pre-empted by federal buyers instead. Trump told a news conference that he had directed Vice President Pence, charged with leading the national coronavirus response, not to return calls from governors who were not properly respectful. Some Republican governors, by contrast, have bragged about getting everything they need; others, both Republican and Democrat, have concluded that publicly praising Trump, or Pence, are better routes to getting what they need.
Trump’s anti-WHO campaign can be understood in this context, as a way of turning the shortcomings of the US response to his advantage. The substance is irrelevant – what the WHO does, how it might do it better, and whether undue Chinese influence is a problem. Although large majorities of Americans tell pollsters they support international cooperation against the virus, UN organizations are a reliable whipping boy for Trump’s core supporters. When he blames the organization for deaths in the US, journalists pride themselves on being fairminded by reciting the its shortcomings. When American internationalists protest, they reinforce Trump’s critique that they are selling out US interests to foreigners, giving him more proof points with his base.