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Politics in the Time of COVID-19

A view of the Capitol's Rotunda is seen reflected in an ambulance on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 24, 2020.

In order to combat the coronavirus, medical professionals are telling us to keep apart. If you think in terms of our national politics, that should not be too hard. We have been moving apart for decades.

This week, I wrap up a 37-year career at Voice of America, having spent much of that time covering U.S. politics. First, it was the Congress in the early '90s, and for the past quarter century, elections and politics on a national scale for an international audience.

From my vantage point, the past three decades have shown the United States as a house divided, a country buffeted by shifting political currents that sway the pendulum on a regular basis between right and left, stability and upheaval.

Now the country and the world face one of the great challenges of our times — countering the coronavirus pandemic. The closest parallel in recent history was the U.S. coming together to fight terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

That national unity, however, did not last long. The Iraq War a few years later once again split the country apart, and our political differences have only sharpened since the elections of Barack Obama and his successor, Donald Trump.

Differing perceptions

There are numerous examples on the local level of Americans coming together to battle the coronavirus pandemic. On the national level, though, our tribal differences still pull us apart. The public is even divided on the seriousness of the crisis.

A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 59 percent of Democrats see the outbreak as a serious threat to public health, while 33 percent of Republicans agree.

President Donald Trump speaks with Fox News Channel Anchor Bill Hemmer during a Fox News Channel virtual town hall, at the White House, in Washington, March 24, 2020.
President Donald Trump speaks with Fox News Channel Anchor Bill Hemmer during a Fox News Channel virtual town hall, at the White House, in Washington, March 24, 2020.

On Monday, Trump hinted he soon may loosen federal guidelines for social distancing, with an eye toward jolting the economy back to life. "America will again and soon be open for business," he told reporters at the White House. "We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself."

Two recent polls show at least half the country approves of Trump's response to the coronavirus crisis. And his overall approval rating now averages 44 percent, according to assessments by two non-partisan analytical sites, RealClear Politics and

Despite the polling bump, Democrats have less faith than Republicans in Trump's ability to handle the crisis. A recent survey by polling company Civiqs found 90 percent of Democrats dissatisfied with the Trump administration's response, while 85 percent of Republicans approved.

Last week, a Washington Post article quoted one unidentified voter in Kansas as describing the pandemic as "mass hysteria caused by the liberal media. They want to take Trump and our economy down," the person said.

Test for Trump

Dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak now looms as the greatest challenge of Trump's presidency. Many analysts criticized the president for what they saw as a slow and, at times, skeptical response to the emergency early on, with numerous statements either downplaying the seriousness or making exaggerated claims of preparedness.

In recent days, the president often has adopted a more serious tone in dealing with the outbreak and some recent polls show a slight uptick in his approval rating. Overall, though, it is still early to make a judgment on how the public views the president's response.

Trump is now actively seeking the spotlight in the daily coronavirus briefings from the White House. Last week, Trump said he now sees himself as a "wartime president," and the daily TV briefing has quickly become a sort of substitute for his political rallies where he can give wide-ranging answers on the coronavirus and other issues that come to mind.

Recession dangers

As economists warn of a recession, Trump must be mindful of history. Economic downturns are not kind to presidents seeking reelection, as Herbert Hoover found out in 1932, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George H.W. Bush in 1992. All three lost reelection bids.

The Double Check man is seen on a nearly empty Broadway in the financial district, as the coronavirus disease outbreak continues, in New York City, New York, March 23, 2020.
The Double Check man is seen on a nearly empty Broadway in the financial district, as the coronavirus disease outbreak continues, in New York City, New York, March 23, 2020.

Trump may be able to rally support if he remains focused on stemming the spread of the coronavirus and finding bipartisan solutions to the economic upheaval sweeping the country. But the political risks are evident for a president who has been more unpopular than popular during his time in office.

Political expert Alan Abramowitz wrote in a report published by the University of Virginia's Center for Politics that if the president faces a severe recession with low approval ratings in November, "the result could well be a defeat of landslide proportions."

2020 campaign

The coronavirus pandemic has frozen the U.S. presidential campaign in place with former Vice President Joe Biden holding what looks to be an insurmountable delegate lead over Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the battle for the Democratic Party nomination.

The Sanders campaign continues to hold internal discussions about whether to continue to fight or officially back Biden. Several primaries have been put off until early June and there are questions as to whether the party nominating conventions will go ahead as planned in July and August.

Biden has decided to ramp up his messaging on the pandemic, perhaps realizing that the president is seizing the spotlight daily at the White House. In a digital video release Monday, Biden said Trump has been "behind the curve" in his response to the crisis. "Stop swerving between overpromising, buck-passing, and start delivering protection to our people."

Biden and the Democrats also walk a fine line. In criticizing Trump's response, they also must find ways to put the public good ahead of politics during a national crisis.

A house divided

In the early '90s, when covering Congress, I watched as Democrats lost the House of Representatives after 40 years of control in 1994. From there it was on to coverage of the militia movement in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and more recently the rise of the Tea Party during the presidency of Barack Obama.

One of the enduring themes from those Tea Party rallies I often heard was "no compromise," a desire to end bipartisan dealings that these voters often felt betrayed their interests.

As political polarization has grown over the decades, so, too, has the challenge of overcoming that split during a time of national crisis, especially with competing ideological media echo chambers that coarsen the political debate.

We are in the midst of a public health crisis and if history is any guide, the American public often has shown it can rally and rise to the occasion — even when our national political divide gets in the way.

The months ahead may present the greatest challenge yet for a democracy riven by partisanship: Find the will to put people, their health and the country ahead of politics during a presidential election year.

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.