ATLANTA (AP) — The coronavirus outbreak has grounded the 2020 presidential race — but not ended it. What we’re watching heading into a new week of what we used to call the campaign trail:
Days to next set of primaries (if Alaska, Hawaii and Wyoming don’t reschedule): 12
Days to general election: 225
Call it the Bully Pulpit Rule: The terms of any incumbent presidential election start at the White House. Donald Trump, whose chief political skill always has been media domination, seems ready-made for that. The Republican president also has an opposition party stuck in neutral. Joe Biden is the Democrats’ nominee-in-waiting, but Bernie Sanders remains in the race, with no official end in sight.
Yet with all that going for Trump, the COVID-19 pandemic finally has presented the former reality television star with a very real crisis. The leader of the free world, no matter how many White House briefings he gives, cannot simply define, overwhelm or intimidate a deadly communicable disease as if it’s a conventional political opponent. And not even an American president can dictate how the world economy responds. Trump has all the advantages of incumbency. Now, he’s forced to confront the pitfalls.
THE BIG QUESTIONS
Can Trump find his presidential footing?
The president has been consistent about pledging action to confront the coronavirus but inconsistent in his follow-through.
He’s called himself “a wartime president” and said he’s invoking the Defense Production Act, yet there’s no evidence the administration has directed private sector production to meet shortages in medical supplies including gloves, masks and ventilators.
He’s backed the idea of an economic package approaching $2 trillion, including direct payments to a large swath of Americans. Yet the president doesn’t seem to be a central figure in negotiations.
Trump has allowed Dr. Anthony Fauci to become a household name. But the president disagreed openly with the federal government’s top infectious disease expert during nationally televised briefings. Trump has plenty of opportunities to shift from reflexive cheerleader to commanding executive, but he doesn’t appear to be there yet. There is little evidence his political base will punish him for his response. But that chunk of the electorate alone can’t ensure his reelection.
Can Democrats break through the coronavirus cacophony?
A quasi-national quarantine has Biden grounded in his Delaware home.
But he told donors on a Sunday telephone fundraiser that he’s remade his recreation room into a television studio and that he planned, beginning late Monday morning, to give the first of what will become regular briefings.
Sanders is using online addresses to try to stay in the news. The most recent one was a Sunday evening effort that included several guests, notably Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
National party leaders are taking their crack at it, as well. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez and others are holding a tele-conference Monday to mark the 10th anniversary of the Affordable Care Act becoming law. The 2010 health insurance overhaul — and Trump’s efforts to gut it — were expected to be a defining issue of the fall campaign. But see the Bully Pulpit Rule above. None of those Democrats is president.
When will Biden officially launch his search for a vice president?
Biden on Sunday evening teased at a way he could make headlines, telling donors he’d “start that vetting process” for his running mate “very soon, meaning in a matter of weeks.”
Biden indicated he’ll look at “six or seven people.” If he’s giving donors those kinds of details, it’s almost certain that the wheels have started turning inside the campaign. Biden’s already committed to picking a woman. Even amid a pandemic, any movement in the 2020 veepstakes will put Biden in the headlines.
What is Sanders’ next move?
The Vermont senator knows he won’t be the Democratic nominee. But at 78, Sanders also knows this is his last round in the presidential spotlight. And the coronavirus outbreak presents him a new justification for his call to remake the American economy and political system.
He offered a window into his thinking during his online event Sunday night. “In this unprecedented moment in American history, we must act in an unprecedented way,” Sanders told supporters who watched the livestream.
He repeated his longstanding ideas ( a single-payer government insurance system ) and added some new specifics. He called for payments of “$2,000 monthly, every month, every man, woman and child until the crisis is over.” But he never took a shot at Biden. He sounded more like a senator discussing Capitol Hill business than a presidential candidate.
What voting changes are next?
There’s growing pressure for states to expand vote-by-mail systems, both for upcoming primaries and for the Nov. 3 general election. Oregon and Washington state already use mail voting for everyone. But there are logistical, psychological and political barriers in other states. Several have delayed primaries, but there are plenty of signs that the COVID-19 threat will not have abated by the end of primary season. And it’s virtually impossible to push back the general election. The date is set statutorily by Congress, but Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, is locked in by the 20th Amendment to the Constitution.
THE FINAL THOUGHT
Not long ago, Trump made clear he wanted 2020 to be about his stewardship of the economy, a validation of his promise to “make America great again.” From the start of his campaign, Biden also invited a referendum on Trump, arguing that the president threatened the very “soul of the nation.” With seven months and change until Election Day, it’s clear: Both men will get their wish.