WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is walking a fine political line in his push to reopen the economy, with advisers warning him there is a significant risk to his re-election bid in moving too quickly while his base of supporters grows impatient with the economic shutdown over the coronavirus crisis.
Trump sought to show the country had turned a corner this week, unveiling guidelines on how states can bring businesses back online during a press briefing that was part victory lap as he predicted the worst of the crisis was past. He said then some states could start implementing the steps immediately.
But allies and advisers inside and outside of the White House are urging caution, telling the president there is more potential risk at going too fast than too slow, citing polling that shows Americans are looking to take a more measured approach.
They have also cautioned that appearing to give too much responsibility to the governors, though it might appear to help spread out any future blame, could make Trump look like a passive bystander rather than a commander-in-chief leading the country through a crisis.
Some in Trump’s base have been sending another message. Protesters wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and waving Trump signs held demonstrations in key battleground states this week, calling on governors there to re-open businesses and services immediately, even before they have met the newly released federal guidelines. Trump seemed to be siding with the protesters on Friday, tweeting “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”, Minnesota, and Virginia.
The conservative House Freedom Caucus, once led by current White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, also pushed for a quick reopening of businesses Friday, telling the president in a letter that “more government is not the answer to these economic woes — reopening the economy is the answer.”
With more than 20 million Americans filing unemployment claims since the start of the shutdown, campaign advisers don’t expect the economy to be back to where it was at the start of the year by Election Day. But the hope is that by fall it will be on the upswing, giving Trump the chance to pitch an American comeback story featuring feel-good images of people going back to work.
Voters will make their decisions based more on how they feel things are going versus the reality on the ground, said one former White House official close to the president, and much of those decisions will be made by early September — giving Trump just four months to turn the country’s mood around.
One concern advisers have raised about an extended shutdown that lasts into the summer is that the delay could send the economy into a prolonged tailspin where businesses permanently close and don’t re-hire their workers, depressing employment numbers into next year, said a White House official.
But lifting social distancing guidelines too soon, or without the proper preparation, could lead to a rebound in infections and deaths, public health officials have warned. While Trump’s allies believe they can make the case that the initial outbreak wasn’t his fault, urging Trump to place the blame on China or the World Health Organization, it would be a harder case to make that he doesn’t bear the responsibility for a resurgence in infections should he encourage restrictions to be lifted.
“It would be a disaster if it opened up too early, and again, we have a double curve and a double spike in cases and in deaths and we are back to where we were before,” said the White House official.