U.S. President Donald Trump answers a question during a news conference on the coronavirus outbreak at the White House in…
FILE - President Donald Trump answers a question during a news conference on the coronavirus outbreak, at the White House in Washington, Feb. 26, 2020.

The coronavirus threat has already become a political issue in the U.S. presidential campaign, with Democrats questioning President Donald Trump’s credibility and competence in responding to a public health emergency that has also caused a sudden downturn in the U.S. economy.

In addition, there are concerns the spreading virus could disrupt the election process itself, by restricting public gatherings at campaign rallies, political conventions and even voting sites. Traditional political handshaking and baby kissing could become a thing of the past.

The coronavirus outbreak in the United States has spread to over 16 states, and the number of people infected continues to grow.  Globally, there have been over 95,000 infections and over 3,000 deaths reported, with China accounting for the overwhelming majority of cases since the virus surfaced there in late December.

President pivots

Trump this week said that since the start of the outbreak, “my administration has taken the most aggressive action in history to protect our citizens.”

But this recent shift to crisis management mode is undermined, critics say, by his past statements discounting the seriousness of the public health threat.  

“He has something of a credibility problem. He has told sort of mistruths about really small things, and large things,” said Lara Brown, director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University.

FILE - Personnel at the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention work at the Emergency Operations Center in response to the 2019 novel coronavirus, Feb. 13, 2020, in Atlanta.

During a Coronavirus Task Force press conference in February, the president discounted warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the spread of the virus was “inevitable.” Instead, he theorized that the number of cases “within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.”

At a South Carolina campaign rally, Trump referred to Democratic Party criticism of his administration’s coronavirus response as “their new hoax,” and he accused his rivals of stoking fear about the virus for political gain. He also said the news media were “in hysteria mode” in their coronavirus coverage.

Calming fears

Public confidence in Trump’s presidency could hinge on whether his administration can calm growing coronavirus fears.

The Trump administration has sought to reassure the public with daily briefings from the task force led by Vice President Mike Pence that includes noted medical experts Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Dr. Deborah Birx, the State Department’s global AIDS director; and Dr. Robert R. Redfield, director of the CDC.

Efforts at the national level to contain and mitigate this new deadly virus include restricting overseas travel, initiating surveillance at airports and borders, and increasing funding and public education to reduce the risk of infection.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said Wednesday that it was providing $35 million to 28 states and localities to help their public health departments respond to the outbreak.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks to the chamber for a vote on a measure to help tackle the coronavirus outbreak on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 5, 2020.

The U.S. Senate completed work Thursday on an $8.3 billion emergency spending bill to combat the coronavirus. The bill was overwhelmingly approved by the House of Representatives earlier this week and Trump was expected to sign it.

The measure — far more than the administration originally requested — would significantly increase funding for vaccine research and development, for state and local public health agencies, for medical supplies and for the training of health care workers.

Economic vulnerability

However, the sudden stock market declines, disruptions to the global supply chain caused by the outbreak in China and massive travel cancellations have already undermined Trump’s key campaign issue: robust economic growth under his presidency.

“The coronavirus really throws a wrench into that picture, and that could hurt his campaign seriously,” said historian Thomas Schwartz of Vanderbilt University.

The outbreak globally has already caused numerous factory closings, sharp declines of customers at restaurants, theaters and sporting events, and an increasing number of airline flights grounded. Tourism accounts for about 10% of total world employment, or about 319 million jobs that could be seriously impacted by the health crisis.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said this week that global growth could be cut in half, to 1.5% in 2020, if the virus continued to spread.

The Federal Reserve on Tuesday cut its benchmark interest rate by a half percentage point to try to calm financial markets, which have suffered their worst week since the 2008 financial crisis.

FILE - Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks as fellow candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., listens during a presidential primary debate, Nov. 20, 2019, in Atlanta.

Democratic choices

The two main contenders for the Democratic Party nomination could benefit politically from this crisis, if Trump’s response is seen by the public as inadequate.

In 2005, the perception that President George W. Bush was not fully engaged in the initial aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, tanked his approval rating.

For U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, the national medical emergency adds a public safety justification to his key campaign issue — advocating for free health care for all.

But public yearning for experienced leadership in times of crisis could also help explain the surge in support for former Vice President Joe Biden in recent primaries.   

“I do believe that in a moment of uncertainty and contingency in crisis, people are going to look for the safe choice, and that is certainly Joe Biden in the Democratic primary,” said Matthew Continetti, a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute.

At the same time, Democratic candidates could also find public opinion turn against them if they are “seen politicizing what is a public health crisis,” Continetti added.

Election disruptions

It is too early to tell if the coronavirus will affect the election process itself.

In Israel, election monitors recently wore masks and gloves to count votes in polling stations where some infected voters were quarantined.

Candidates in the U.S. are still holding mass rallies, even while many public gatherings have been canceled across the country. If the summer heat does not reduce the virus' spread, political parties may look to scale back their nomination conventions, and there are increasing calls to expand vote-by-mail options to reduce the risk of infection.

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