A viral campaign: Trump’s second term fate

Rishikesh Bhuskute discusses how Trump's response to the pandemic may shape his upcoming re-election bid.

Rishikesh Bhuskute
12th May 2020
Before the emergence of the coronavirus, one would forgive you for assuming Donald Trump’s re-election bid was all but secured. The ensuing pandemic, however, has done more than throw a spanner in the works; it has reset the entire campaign.

As the 2020 election zoomed into focus, President Trump made it clear that a strong economy and low unemployment rates would be at the forefront of his re-election bid. Barack Obama’s unemployment rates throughout his second term as President began at 8.0% and ended at a low of 4.7% in January 2017. Trump has continued to pull down the percentage, which had settled at 3.5% in February 2020, the lowest rate since December 1969. Concerning the economy, Trump can point to steady quarterly GDP growth of 2-3% since his election, though his average is only 0.3 percentage points above that of Obama.

Since the end of February, coronovirus has swept across the United States. Along with the devastating health impacts, it has crumbled the very bedrock upon which President Trump had built his second-term ambitions. Unemployment rates had risen to 4.4% in March before shooting up to an alarming 14.7% in April. The jobless rate is now worse than at any time since the Great Depression in the 1930s. GDP meanwhile has contracted 4.8%, the worst economic decline since 2008, and is expected to reach an unprecedented level of 15-25% contraction in the next quarter. Albeit through minimal fault of his own, Trump can no longer claim these two factors as demonstrative measures of his tenure’s success.

Perhaps more pertinent to public opinion of the President is not the economic health of the country, but the physical health. It is not outlandish to suggest that Trump’s sluggish response to a severe virus that he took exceptionally lightly has called into question his ability to lead in difficult times. And even his most ardent of supporters were at the very least slightly bemused, if not outright incredulous, at Trump’s suggestion to inject oneself with disinfectant.

Any unrest between voters towards Trump and his administration will surely be capitalised on by his chief rival in the upcoming election, Joe Biden. The Democrat Party nominee has gained a lot of ground in recent weeks according to state-level polls, especially in states where President Trump has been particularly uncooperative with the governor. Following the same negative trend is the President’s approval rating, which has hovered at around -8% since the start of the pandemic. Even a small rally through the feeling of togetherness behind the government during April hasn’t done much to change prevailing sentiment permanently. Perhaps most importantly, polls show Biden with a small lead in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, all states which Hilary Clinton lost by a small margin in the previous election. Whether Trump can garner enough support among the swing states and retain his advantage in the electoral college, something that has remained constant since 2016, has been called into question.

Soon after occupancy of the White House, the President has launched a tariff war against China, an ongoing exchange which extends to the current day. Trump and his administration view the sizeable bilateral trade deficit as a sign of US economic weakness and have taken significant steps to try and reduce it, alienating China and other parts of the world in the process.

In January, Trump and the US agreed to a trade deal with China.  At the time, this looked set to become a cornerstone to his re-election bid, but relationships between the world’s two largest economies have soured through the pandemic, and now the deal presents a potential political liability.

The phase-one pact, which took effect in mid-February, has so far flattered to deceive on numerous fronts, especially Beijing’s promise of extensive agriculture and energy purchases. Unfortunately for Trump, he finds himself between a rock and a hard place. If the populist president responds too vigorously to the growing clamour to punish China – through tariffs and other means – he imperils businesses and consumers already facing the deepest recession since the 1930s. But if Trump decides to go against his regular pattern of behaviour and allow China to keep undershooting the targets set, the deal he struck in January carries very little value at all.

Conversely, Joe Biden’s stance is in favour of free trade, and he would be likely to phase out tariffs upon incumbency of the Oval Office. He believes that the Trump administration’s policy has been harmful to farmers and prefers to focus on issues he believes are more central to the dispute, such as China’s industrial subsidiaries and support for state-owned firms.  Should prospective voters grow tiresome of President Trump’s inflammatory policy, the former vice-president will be sure to welcome them with open arms.

Four months ago, the economy was bustling, the Democrat Party floundering, and Donald Trump was marching almost unopposed towards a near-certain second term. Estimates suggest that Trump can afford to lose the popular vote by 2-3% and still win the election, and the road to re-election again runs through the Midwest, where he is mostly a popular man. But with six months left until the vote count, even the most optimistic supporter of the Grand Old Party cannot be sure of Republican success. The race is well and truly on.

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