Updated at 11:44 a.m. ET on April 13, 2020.
The American people have done Donald Trump a giant favor. By telling pollsters they want to extend social-distancing restrictions, they’ve persuaded him—for the moment—to act in his own political self-interest. Trump has great difficulty accepting short-term pain in exchange for long-term gain—even though in the case of COVID-19, doing so is his best reelection strategy. Luckily for him, ordinary Americans are demanding that he do exactly that.
Until this week, Trump had spent most of the year downplaying the threat from COVID-19. As The Washington Post noted in a timeline of Trump’s statements, he had minimized the coronavirus threat until mid-March. Then, after briefly announcing that the United States was at war with the virus, he minimized the danger again late last month when he demanded that the U.S. economy reopen by Easter. But this week his tone changed dramatically. Trump—who had previously said the coronavirus would soon “disappear”—on Tuesday indicated that, even under the administration’s “goals of community mitigation,” it would kill 100,000 to 240,000 Americans.
Before Trump’s about-face, some commentators rightly noticed that, politically, he was making a mistake by downplaying the virus. “The strangest part” of Trump’s initial refusal to take the virus more seriously, the New York Times columnist David Leonhardt observed, was “that it’s almost certainly damaging his chances of re-election.” Leonhardt’s point was that what Trump should care about most is not his approval rating now but his approval rating when Americans vote in November. From the moment scientists started warning about the COVID-19 threat, Trump should have called for extensive measures to contain it. Yes, those measures might have hurt the economy—and his popularity—in the short term. But they would have increased the chances that America will have tamed the virus by summer, thus allowing an economic rebound in the fall, as Americans go to the polls.