‘Wartime President’? Trump Rewrites History in an Election Year

WASHINGTON — With the economy faltering and the political landscape unsettled as the coronavirus death toll climbs, a stark and unavoidable question now confronts President Trump and his advisers: Can he save his campaign for re-election when so much is suddenly going so wrong?

After three years of Republicans’ championing signs of financial prosperity that were to be Mr. Trump’s chief re-election argument, the president has never needed a new message to voters as he does now, not to mention luck. At this point, the president has one clear option for how to proceed politically, and is hoping that an array of factors will break his way.

The option, which he has brazenly pushed in recent days, is to cast himself as a “wartime president” who looks in charge of a nation under siege while his likely Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., is largely out of sight hunkered down in Delaware. This gambit, however, requires a rewriting of history — Mr. Trump’s muted approach to the virus early on — and it’s far from clear if many voters will accept the idea of him as a wartime leader.

Then there are other variables that he and his allies hope will fall in their favor: that the outbreak of the virus will slow and, in the warmer months, dissipate; that the states will get it under control; that the federal government’s steps taken so far will flatten the curve; that Mr. Biden and the Democrats will look impotent and inconsequential by comparison; and that enough voters will move past his initial efforts to play down the virus’s dangers.

The great unknown, of course — and the tremendous risk to Mr. Trump’s political fate, no matter what he says or does — is that the human cost, the economic toll, and the longevity and course of the pandemic are all X factors that will most likely play out for months and could be strongly salient if not severe by the time of the November general election.

In perhaps the best-case scenario for Mr. Trump, the patina of a “wartime president” could prove to be influential with casual voters who don’t dig into the details of his belated response to the coronavirus, which included dismissing the criticism of his handling of the threat as a Democratic “hoax” and contributing to a slow start in testing for the virus.

“He is counting on people being so traumatized on a day-to-day basis that they will forget his inaction,” said Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University. “It’s better for him to be a wartime commander in chief than someone who, when the big crisis hit, misread it completely.”

Politically, Mr. Brinkley said, the new posture made sense. “He can claim credit for the curve flattening at some point,” he said, “and hope people will be afraid to push a leader out of office if the crisis pushes into the fall.”

The president’s course correction showed some quick results that were seized on by his political advisers. An ABC News poll released last week showed that 55 percent of Americans approved of Mr. Trump’s response to the pandemic, up from 43 percent the week before.

Rarely have incumbent presidents seen their arguments for re-election evaporate so quickly. Mr. Trump and his advisers had planned to argue that the strong economy warranted a second term and that supporters and detractors alike wanted their 401(k)’s in the Trump-era stock market; that has now become an impossible sell. And as the administration negotiates an enormous bailout package with Congress for multiple industries, his strategy of caricaturing Democrats as “socialists” is not tenable either.

So Mr. Trump is trying to mount a new version of his old argument: that “I alone can fix it,” as he said at the 2016 Republican convention about the nation’s problems. He is counting on enough voters believing they have to stick by a leader in the midst of an immense global crisis.

Addressing fearful Americans, Mr. Trump said on Sunday evening: “You have a leader that will always fight for you and I will not stop until we win. This is going to be a victory.” He added at another point, “No American is alone as long as we’re united.”

But shortly after reading his new script on Sunday night, Mr. Trump mocked Senator Mitt Romney of Utah for self-quarantining. “Romney’s in isolation? Gee, that’s too bad,” he said sarcastically at the briefing room podium.

Mr. Trump is on uncertain political ground. His poll numbers in critical swing states like Pennsylvania and Michigan have been wavering, with most surveys showing him behind Mr. Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Republican officials are banking on voters seeing him as take-charge in contrast to Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders, who have been following the government’s guidance about staying indoors but have not yet found memorable ways to show how they would lead in this crisis.

Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders have held news conferences from remote locations, and Mr. Biden has participated in “virtual” fund-raisers. While Mr. Biden has an all but insurmountable lead in the race for the Democratic nomination, he has no real ability to steer events because he is not officially the presumptive nominee, and therefore is not the head of the party either.

As a result, Mr. Biden finds himself with far fewer options than Mr. Trump or Democratic governors like Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, who have real authority and are holding news conferences often broadcast live.

In turn, Republican officials and Sanders allies are pushing out attacks on Mr. Biden’s low profile, asking “Where’s Joe?” in emails to supporters and the news media. (A spokesman, T.J. Ducklo, said Sunday that Mr. Biden had not been tested for the virus because he had shown no symptoms.)

But the “wartime” strategy also presents risks to Mr. Trump. In his new posture, he is trying to rewrite recent history, erasing his comments from as recently as a week ago when he told Americans that they needed to “just relax” because “it all will pass.” It is also undercut by his resistance to calls for additional federal action from governors in hard-hit states.

Mr. Trump’s temperament is also dissimilar to “wartime presidents” with whom he is seeking to compare himself. Over the course of his presidency, Mr. Trump has struggled to stick to any bipartisan message, or speak emotionally to the pain and fear of Americans during crisis points like natural disasters or mass shootings.

“That’s why it’s so hard to be a wartime president,” said Michael Beschloss, the historian and author of “Presidents of War.” “Not only are you coming up with a strategy and tactics, but at the same time you have to let Americans know that you know how hard this is for them.”

Mr. Trump, so far, has struggled to feel anyone’s pain, unlike past presidents, while continuing to play out the fights with the news media that enliven his base. Last week, he lashed out at a journalist who had prompted him to explain what his message was to the millions of Americans watching him from home, who felt scared.

The president has also continued to credit his own administration’s response. But Mr. Beschloss added that “part of being a wartime president is being willing to give people bad news,” a job Mr. Trump has mostly left to others.

At the same time, he has been timid of using wartime powers to fight what he has called an “invisible enemy.” Last week, for instance, he resisted invoking the Defense Production Act, a federal law that grants presidents extraordinary powers to force American industries to ensure the availability of critical equipment.

Mr. Trump’s allies are aware that his re-election now hangs almost entirely on how he handles the crisis. And the question is whether he will be seen as President George W. Bush was in the immediate aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when he was widely viewed as bringing the nation together, or if he will be compared to Mr. Bush amid the fallout from Hurricane Katrina, when he tried to minimize a crisis that eventually became too big for him to ignore, and during which Mr. Bush praised cabinet officials even as the federal government bungled the response.

Aides said that how Mr. Trump ends up being perceived would also depend on Mr. Trump’s own disposition during the crisis. It is not clear to them whether he will be able to maintain his focus on the crisis for months, especially as the economic situation worsens. Over the weekend, some Trump advisers weren’t ready to accept the likelihood of jobless claims climbing into the millions by next month.

The White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, defended Mr. Trump’s response as apolitical. “While it seems many in the media continue to use every opportunity to destroy this president, the fact remains that he has risen to fight this crisis by taking aggressive historic action to protect the health, wealth and well-being of the American people,” Ms. Grisham said in an email.

Some Democrats, meanwhile, said the mistakes made at the beginning of the response had already colored how Mr. Trump would be remembered both in the history books and at the ballot box in November. “At the end of the day, this will be Katrina with the waters at a much higher level, and lasting a longer time,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster.

But there is an emerging split in Democratic circles about whether to attack Mr. Trump’s response to the virus in real time, or whether the gravity of the moment calls for a pause in negative political advertising and attacks.

Some of Mr. Trump’s highest-profile political adversaries leading states that have become epicenters of the virus have been striking conciliatory notes as they seek federal assistance. Mr. Cuomo said the president was “fully engaged” on the crisis. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Democrat of California, described a recent phone conversation with Mr. Trump as “a privilege.”

Other antagonists have continued to criticize him. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York tapped into one of Mr. Trump’s greatest fears when he referred to him on CNN as the “Herbert Hoover of his generation,” comparing him to a president who failed to recognize or take bold actions to stave off the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression.

The debate about whether to embrace or attack Mr. Trump in a national emergency played out most succinctly on Twitter between David Axelrod and David Plouffe, the two men who led Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns.

Mr. Axelrod said that voters would have plenty of time to judge Mr. Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, “but now doesn’t seem the moment for negative ads.” Mr. Plouffe responded that time was of the essence, and that Democrats couldn’t afford to “disarm” and let Mr. Trump create his own reality.

Veterans of John Kerry’s 2004 campaign said Mr. Biden was in a stronger position against Mr. Trump than they were when they faced an election against Mr. Bush. Back then, Mr. Bush still basked in good will from his performance in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Some Democratic Party officials said a comparison between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump at a moment of crisis only helped Mr. Biden.

“You can see the contrast between the steady, assured, informed and strong leadership that Vice President Biden has shown and the bungling, chaotic and dishonest start-stop approach that Mr. Trump has shown us since the beginning of this crisis,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party.

Thomas Kaplan contributed reporting.

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