Underpromise and overdeliver. It’s a tenet of crisis management and basic expectation-setting.
President Trump is doing the opposite, offering a much more optimistic—or naïve—outlook on the coronavirus outbreak and its devastating effects than public health experts and economists. At a March 19 briefing, a reporter asked when he thought life in the United States would get back to normal. “I hope very soon,” he said. Earlier that day, he tweeted, “We are going to WIN, sooner rather than later!” At a March 18 briefing, Trump said, “There’s going to be a comeback very, very quickly as soon as this is solved.”
Trump isn’t putting a time frame on what he means by “soon” and “quickly.” But it’s hard to find any authoritative voices who share his rosy assessments. One U.S. government report finds it could take 18 months to fully contain the virus. An influential British study found the same thing, pointing out that the development of a vaccine may be the only thing that ends the pandemic. That almost certainly won’t happen until mid- to late 2021—nobody’s idea of “soon.” Meanwhile, 480,000 Americans could die of the bug in a far-from-worst-case scenario.
Economic forecasts are no more upbeat. “The pain will be acute in the coming months and risks lay heavily to the downside as the impact of the virus – particularly the extreme financial market reaction – risks exacerbating the fallout,” Oxford Economics predicted on March 19. Bank of America expects U.S. GDP to contract 12% in the second quarter, which would be the worst quarterly collapse since the Great Depression. Venture capitalist John Chambers, former CEO of Cisco, told Yahoo Finance on March 19, “This next 12-18 months will be very tough.”
Trump obviously wants notable improvements by Nov. 3—Election Day. No president in modern times has won reelection in the midst of a recession, or even in the aftermath of a recession. When the economy swoons, voters typically put all other considerations aside and vote for somebody new. Recent analysis by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics suggests a president with a -10 net approval rating—Trump’s roughly—would win just 204 electoral votes if the economy shrinks by 2% in the second quarter of election year. Winning requires 270 electoral votes. If the economy shrinks by 5%, the incumbent wins just 144 electoral votes. If the economy shrinks by the magnitude Bank of America is forecasting, and the model holds, Trump is headed for a historic drubbing.
It’s fair to argue that part of a president’s job during a crisis is to reassure the public. But it’s also part of a president’s job to prepare people for coming difficulties. Unwarranted optimism becomes false hope if a leader keeps promising improvements nobody sees in reality. Trump’s famous “base” would probably stick with him, but losing credibility on the economy would cost Trump dearly among voters who support him mainly because the job and stock markets have been strong under his watch.
Trump already faces sharp criticism for dismissing the coronavirus pandemic during its early days, saying things such as “we have it totally under control” (Jan. 22) and “we pretty much shut it down” (Jan. 31). The first cases of the virus were discovered in the United States and South Korea on the same day in January. South Korea launched aggressive testing and other measures, and now seems to be containing the virus. The United States dithered and remains far from containing the virus. South Korea’s testing rate per capita so far is 31 times that of the United States.
Trump’s M.O is obvious: Declare that he’s doing a great job, and hope voters buy it. Trump begins every daily coronavirus update by citing examples of how effective his leadership has been, saying on March 19, for example: “If people would have known about it, we could have stopped it in place.” But people did know about it, and those who acted quickly got results. Trump barely reacted at all, and the best he can do now is promise future results many experts doubt.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: [email protected]. Encrypted communication available. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.
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