President Donald Trump is promising to outline an optimistic vision for America at this week's Republican convention. But he'll be speaking to a public deeply pessimistic about the direction of the country and overwhelmingly dissatisfied with his and the federal government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Most Americans think there isn't enough being done to help individual Americans, small businesses or public schools as the pandemic stretches on, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Overall, just 31% of Americans approve of Trump's leadership on the pandemic, a significant drop from 44% approval in March, when the virus began sweeping through the United States.
The public's negative assessment of how Trump is handling the crisis puts him on the defensive as his November face-off against Democrat Joe Biden nears. One of Trump's challenges as his convention opens on Monday night is to convince Americans that anything about his response to the pandemic will change or improve if voters give him four more years in office.
Yet Trump has shown little willingness to acknowledge that a course correction of any kind is needed. He's repeatedly cast the virus as all but defeated, even when cases were sharply increasing, including in states he needs to win in November. He's also insisted the U.S. has vastly outperformed other countries in tackling the pandemic, despite the fact the U.S. has the most confirmed cases (more than 5.7 million) and most confirmed deaths (more than 176,000) of any country in the world.
"To be persuasive, there needs to be a strategy and not just rhetoric," Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, said of Trump's challenge this week.
The president heads into his four-night nominating convention with an overall approval rating of 35%. That's down from 43% in March but still within range of where Trump has been for much of his presidency. Where he falls within that range as Election Day nears could make a difference to his reelection prospects.
His support continues to be driven overwhelmingly by Republicans, with 79% approving of his job performance compared with just 5% of Democrats.
Trump must also contend with Americans' persistently negative view of the country's direction as he asks voters to stay the course instead of handing the reins over to Biden. The AP-NORC poll finds that just 23% think the country is heading in the right direction, while 75% think it's on the wrong path.
Republican strategist Gail Gitcho said the national mood makes it imperative for the president to strike an optimistic tone during his convention.
"The most important time for optimism is when pessimism is rampant," said Gitcho, who advised Sen. Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign. "That's when it is most needed and works best."
The president's highest marks continue to come on the economy: 47% of Americans approve of his stewardship of the economy, though that, too, is down from 56% approval in March. Trump is expected to lean hard into his economic credentials during the convention, arguing that when the pandemic subsides, he can again lead the country into a period of sustained growth and job creation.
Trump's advisers are also seizing on remarks Biden made last week in which he said he would shut the country down to stop further spread of the virus if that's what public health experts recommend. They believe Americans are weary of pandemic restrictions and focused instead on ways to safely keep the economy up and running.
Biden, in an interview with ABC News, said he would "be prepared to do whatever it takes to save lives because we cannot get the country moving until we control the virus."
As the country grapples with how to keep businesses afloat and open schools for in-person learning, Americans see little help flowing to those who need it most. Two-thirds of Americans say the government is doing too little to help the individuals and small businesses. A similar share thinks the government needs to do more to help public schools with their finances.
The poll was conducted after Congress left for its August recess without passing a new round of pandemic assistance. House Democrats approved a $3 trillion relief package that included money for schools, state and local governments and other entities, but Republicans balked at the price tag and some of the provisions. It's unclear whether lawmakers can break the logjam when they return to the Capitol in September.
The lack of action on Capitol Hill appears to have contributed to Congress' sinking approval rating. Just 13% of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing during the pandemic, down from 31% in March. The federal government as a whole has also taken a hit with the public, with approval down from 38% in March to 23% now.
Americans remain more positive in their views of how state governments are handling the pandemic, with 44% approving of their state's performance. Democrats are somewhat more likely than Republicans to approve of state government, 51% to 41%.