It's Not the Economy, Stupid!
It’s the economy, stupid! That is what Bill Clinton’s campaign advisor, James Carville, wrote as a message to focus and motivate campaign staffers in the 1992 presidential election. After ousting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait at the head of an international coalition, in February 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, Republican President George H. W. Bush (Bush 41) was riding high with a public approval rating around 90%. To counter his popularity, Clinton and Carville decided to focus on America’s economic performance. They portrayed (with the complicit assistance of the media) a recession in 1991 as the worst since the Great Depression. The actual recession was very mild and the economy was already well into recovery by the time of the election although unemployment lagged the recovery and was still around seven percent. President Bush’s sky-high approval ratings after Desert Storm fell into the thirties and he lost the election to Bill Clinton.
In the run up to the 2020 election in the midst of the Coronavirus outbreak, President Trump in his daily press briefings, appears anxious about getting the economy rolling again as soon as possible. President Trump’s campaign advisor needs to ignore Carville’s campaign strategy. It’s not the economy, stupid! It’s the pandemic, stupid!
President Trump’s only hope of being reelected depends on how he is judged to have dealt with the pandemic. His wonderful economy (that had stymied the Dems efforts to pan it) is gone. His wonderful stock market that had been at record highs reached bear territory in a matter of days. The country is practically closed and many cities are under lock down. But the people don’t care about the economy. They don’t care about the stock market. They just want to know when it is safe to come out of their houses and begin rebuilding their lives.
President Trump, along with Vice President Pence and the White House Coronavirus Task Force, has been giving daily televised press briefings which is totally appropriate and necessary. He usually starts by rattling off all the medical equipment and supplies that the federal government is supplying to the states in the effort to fight the Coronavirus. But he sounds defensive, as if he is reacting to past accusations that the government wasn’t doing enough. He then praises governors that have thanked him for his efforts and berates governors he believes are insufficiently grateful. He indulges in wishful thinking about reopening the economy and the imminence of future medical breakthroughs.
He then takes some questions from the press in attendance (whittled down to just a few by social distancing). Questions he doesn’t like he calls fake news and often belittles the reporter daring to challenge him. This is not presidential. This is petty. His narcissism and thin skin are showing through. He is not reassuring a worried nation. He is not comforting people that are scared. He is protecting his bruised ego.
When he is done, he is followed by Vice President Pence and the medical experts of his task force, Dr. Tony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx. Vice President Pence sounds much more authoritative and in command than President Trump. Drs. Fauci and Birx lay out the facts of the pandemic crisis with great clarity and realistically respond to questions about what is being done and what to expect. Trump’s emergency team exudes a competence that, unfortunately, can only partially overcome the president’s performance.
In the midst of any crisis, there are many missteps. Few countries are managing this crisis very well with the possible exception of China which reports that the communist country managed the outbreak with ruthless efficiency (although many believe the reports to be propaganda that sugar coats what is really happening). Information is hard to come by, coming from multiple sources and showing only a partial picture of what is going on. This is a war and it must be fought in the fog of war. We won’t really know what happened until the crisis is over. Only then will we know what mistakes were made so that we can then proceed to remedy those problems in order to be better prepared for the next crisis.
Hopefully there will not be any partisan finger pointing, however that desire is likely stillborn as the finger pointing has already begun. President Trump’s hopes for reelection hinge on the outcome of the Coronavirus pandemic. In his campaign rallies and press briefings, he likes to be off-the-cuff and send out trial balloons. But off-the-cuff comments and trial balloons that must be walked back are unnerving people. His team has done a pretty good job of catching up to this wave of infections, getting people tested and getting the necessary supplies to critical hospitals. President Trump needs to consult with his team and coordinate responses in order to send out a coherent message to the American people. If his emergency task force is successful and he acts like a president in charge of handling the crisis, he stands a good chance to be reelected.
I do not want to even contemplate that they might not be successful.
The Coronavirus pandemic will not stop on a dime and the US economy will not immediately come roaring back to life. People will hesitate before getting back on a crowded airplane. They will wait a bit before going to a packed concert hall.
After the pandemic ebbs, the economy will not need to be goosed, it will need to be healed. President Trump is desperately hoping that the economy will be running full tilt come this November. But that is not likely to happen. If there is an assumption that It will come roaring back and that no special measures are needed, then the comeback could turn into a debacle.
Many companies will be broke. Many other companies will have to basically start from scratch. On business news channel CNBC, CEO after CEO line up to explain the woes of their company and their industry. Restauranteurs lament the spoiled food in their pantries and freezers. There is the problem of hiring and training replacement staff. Landlords not receiving rent payments have to dig into their own pockets to pay taxes and make repairs. There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth in this particular circle of hell.
But this shutdown of the US economy is not the fault of the unemployed waitress or bartender. Nor is it the fault of the multinational CEO. There is real harm being done to the US economy and to the people who participate in it. New laws will need to be passed. Bankruptcy laws must be changed to accommodate the new circumstances. Agencies must be created to reintegrate the people displaced by the shutdown.
More importantly, the planning for restarting the US economy must begin now. If we wait until the pandemic has begun to subside, the restart will be as unfocused, hesitant and ineffectual as the initial response to the virus. A lack of a coherent plan to restart the economy is a huge opportunity for corporate lobbyists to take advantage of the confusion and urgency when legislators finally get around to passing bills to deal with the aftermath. The lobbyists will be matched by the progressive left that will also try to insert their agenda into any recovery legislation. The ultimate garbled mishmash will be costly and ineffectual.
The economic disaster we face is not an indictment of the free market. It is the free market that is providing potential vaccines and treatments for COVID-19 that will help us get through this pandemic. It will be up to our republican form of government to do its part as well.