- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 7, 2020

President Trump’s campaign is tangling with the most basic question for a reelection bid: Are you better off now than you were four years ago?

With the coronavirus crisis killing more than 70,000 Americans and devastating the economy, Mr. Trump has shifted the reelection question to “could it have been worse?” and “who is best equipped to rebuild the economy?”

“It’s going to be very difficult to overcome whatever happens with the virus,” said GOP consultant Keith Naughton. “He’s got agency over how he runs over [presumed Democratic nominee Joseph R.] Biden, but he doesn’t have agency over the virus.”

“He is running against the virus,” he said.

Mr. Trump has said he is somewhat comfortable if the November election is a referendum on his handling of the outbreak.

“I am and I’m not. It’s a very interesting thought,” he told ABC News. “I built the greatest economy, and then it was turned off for good reason. We saved millions of lives by doing it. I think people are going to remember that.”

He also went on to tout other aspects of his record like rebuilding the military, cutting regulations and taxes, and getting a record number of judicial nominees confirmed.

“So I hope it’s not solely on what I’ve done here, because this is like rubber. It’s very, very amorphous,” he said. “But, you know what? … I think in a certain way, maybe our best work has been on what we’ve done with COVID-19.”

Americans were evenly split on the all-important question of whether they feel they’re better off now compared to before Mr. Trump took office in 2017, according to a YouGov/Economist poll released this week.

Thirty-nine percent said they’re better off now, 38% said they were better off four years ago, and 23% said they weren’t sure.

However, 50% said the country was better off four years ago, compared to 30% who said it’s better off now.

The survey of 1,500 U.S. adults was taken from May 3-5.

The Trump campaign kicked off the week by releasing a flowery, minute-long TV ad honing in on the president’s COVID-19 response efforts — an ad in which Mr. Biden barely made an appearance.

“This election is 100% about Donald Trump, and to a large extent Donald Trump’s reaction to COVID-19,” said Justin Haskins, editorial director at the Heartland Institute. “That’s all this election is about. It’s not about Joe Biden.”

But the president’s campaign on Thursday also released a blistering, 60-second ad that focused on Mr. Biden, slamming him for opposing Mr. Trump’s ban on travel from China and painting the gaffe-prone former vice president as befuddled and erratic.

Mr. Naughton said Mr. Biden can expect to be on the receiving end of wave after wave of attacks considering Mr. Trump’s other, more “amorphous” adversary.

“I think his strategy is — and it has been before this virus and it has been for two years — it’s going to be a constant attack,” he said of Mr. Trump.

He described the virus as “a moving target that isn’t thinking or isn’t strategic — it’s just sort of this phenomenon that’s occurring and it’s going to occur in an unpredictable fashion.”

The Trump campaign allowed that the virus is a major factor, but stressed that the rest of Mr. Trump’s record also presents a clear contrast to Mr. Biden’s decades of experience in the public sphere.

“Every election is a choice,” said Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh, touting Mr. Trump’s record on the economy, taxes, trade, and improving America’s standing in the world.

“While the coronavirus will no doubt be on voters’ minds, they will also need to know about the contrast in records and vision between President Trump and Joe Biden,” Mr. Murtaugh said.

With an economy still limping after the 2008 Wall Street crash, President Obama and his team tried a similar “choice not referendum” message during his 2012 reelection bid en route to his win over Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

Still, Mr. Trump is also leaning into his administration’s response to the virus and his status as a crisis manager, referring to himself as a “wartime president” and adopting militaristic tones as he characterizes the American people as warriors.

“His performance in the crisis is in the spotlight,” said Mike Ginsberg, cofounder of the Suburban Virginia Republican Coalition. “In one sense it’s a challenge but in another sense, it’s an opportunity.”

After proclaiming “I alone can fix it” at the 2016 Republican National Convention, Mr. Trump also says he’s the best person to rebuild the economy because he oversaw historically good jobs and economic numbers before the crisis took hold.

“We’re going to do it again, and that’s what we’re starting and I view these last couple of days as the beginning,” Mr. Trump said. “We’re going to build the greatest economy in the world again and it’s going to happen pretty fast.”

Mr. Trump and members of his administration have also become increasingly hawkish on calling out China, saying China intentionally misled the world on the pandemic’s scope.

Mr. Murtaugh said China presents a particular weakness for Mr. Biden, saying he has a history of “coddling” the regime and that it’s a key part of the contrast between them.

“When voters learn about all of that it will be a clear choice,” he said.

The Biden campaign countered by saying Mr. Trump has too eagerly accepted Chinese Communist party “propaganda.”

Democrats have pointed to Mr. Trump’s statements from earlier in the year praising Chinese President Xi Jinping on the country’s coronavirus response as evidence that the public shouldn’t be buying the tough talk.

They also say Mr. Trump’s slow response to the pandemic has cost American lives.

Mr. Biden recently said the president is “just about the worst possible person to handle a crisis like this.”

“He doesn’t have a team, the temperament or, quite frankly, the moral authority to take it on,” Mr. Biden said. “He doesn’t put a high enough value on American lives to make this fight and make the right calculations, the right choices. To tell the truth. His priorities are elsewhere and it shows.”

Polling has shown Mr. Biden ahead of Mr. Trump, though 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton had also enjoyed a substantial edge at this point.

Mr. Biden led Mr. Trump by a 9-point, 50% to 41% margin, according to a national Monmouth poll released this week.

The survey showed Mr. Biden’s favorability holding essentially steady even as he’s fended off and denied sexual assault accusations from a former staffer.

“It’s possible that recent headlines about a sexual assault claim may have had an impact on [Biden‘s] favorability rating, but most voters still see this election mainly as a referendum on Trump,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

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