W. James Antle III “Trump wins the lockdown wars”

OPINION

President Trump has won the lockdown wars as coronavirus-related restrictions on businesses are eased across the country, so far with few signs of dire health consequences for the population.

Just weeks ago, the question was whether to reopen, with the first states to press ahead accused of engaging in human sacrifice and killing their residents to appease the “Trump death cult.” New York Times columnist Paul Krugman asked, “How many will die for the Dow?” as recently as Thursday.

Now, the debate is primarily over how quickly and to what extent reopening should take place, with the stragglers mainly blue states. Anthony Fauci, considered by many the public face of stay-at-home policies, now says the country can’t stay locked down forever. When Trump’s Easter target date was deemed unrealistic, Memorial Day weekend was floated as another possibility — and the grand opening is beginning.

Whether Trump wins reelection now depends substantially on how the reopening is perceived. Voters are still nervous about returning to normal too quickly, including key Trump demographics such as senior citizens, who have been trending Democratic during the pandemic, and religious voters, among whom there has been some slippage in favorability for Trump. But a Harvard/Politico poll found that 60% of Republicans now want nonessential businesses to open up in their states, following the president’s lead. Trump is betting heavily that reopening will lead to an economic rebound without deepening the public health crisis.

Trump economic adviser Kevin Hassett predicted “a very strong second half of the year” on Friday. “We expect … the third quarter will be the highest growth quarter in U.S. history,” Hassett told reporters at the White House. “We expect that output is going to recover relatively quickly … Employment lags that a little bit.” This tracks with Trump, who has repeatedly said the third quarter will be a “transition” to a robust end to the year’s growth.

“This is a country that’s meant to be open, not closed,” Trump said at a Ford plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan. He defended the decision to engage in the initial lockdowns to avoid overwhelming the healthcare system but said the time had come to end them, adding of the COVID-19 outbreak, “And if there’s a fire, an ember, a flame someplace, we put it out.”

In addition to the virus fears and over 90,000 deaths nationwide, nearly 40 million people in the United States are out of work. This has combined to put Trump in a hole in recent polling against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, with the president trailing 48%-40%, according to Fox News, 47%-42%, according to the Economist/YouGov, and 50%-39%, according to Quinnipiac. The RealClearPolitics polling averages show Trump trailing in three of four major battleground states, except for North Carolina, where he is up by 1.

The question is how much the economy and public morale will need to improve, without any deterioration in coronavirus containment, to lift Trump’s standing. It could require a combination of better numbers and shifting expectations.

“Once the resistance crumbles, every voter will know that the president was pushing to reopen the economy, while the Democrats were pushing to keep everything, especially schools, closed,” said Republican strategist John Feehery. “Joe Biden’s basement bravado is both comical and tragic. The American people prefer strong leadership in a crisis, not whatever Joe is offering.”

Trump is also pressing states to reopen churches and other houses of worship, frequently still prevented from offering regular services due to social distancing requirements. “Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential but have left out churches and other houses of worship,” he said at the White House on Friday. “It’s not right. So, I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship ‘essential.’” It’s not clear what authority he would invoke, although the Justice Department has indicated it will intervene when it sees religious liberty violations.

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