One timeline in play is how long it will take before infections subside. Another is the political calendar. The two are entwined. In this new era of social distancing, Trump can’t hold rallies as a way to mobilize his base and diminish his rivals. But he’s embraced the bully pulpit, and in his hands—and at this jarring moment in the nation’s history—it’s potentially more valuable than routine campaigning. As the election approaches, he may be more and more tempted to use it for his own purposes. His prospects now hinge, after all, on his handling of the outbreak. His focus in the coming months will be to convince voters that he led a dauntless effort to keep Americans alive.
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“Trump’s opponent really is the coronavirus,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina and a friend of the president’s, told me. “If he’s seen to have handled this well and done a good job in the eyes of the public, he’d be almost impossible to beat. If he’s viewed as having fallen short, he’d be in trouble.”
Trump quickly found a substitute for the raucous rallies he’s had to forgo amid the crisis, which his pollster John McLaughlin described as “like the September 11 attack and the 2008 financial crisis combined.” Two days after he canceled his last rally, on March 11, Trump showed up in the Rose Garden for the first of 24 straight news conferences and press gaggles. He’s revived a tradition that he’d previously done away with: the daily White House press briefings, only with himself as emcee. He doesn’t skip a day, whether he has anything new to say or not.
“From a purely political standpoint, he can be seen as the commander in chief for up to two hours a day, leading the country through this crisis,” Sean Spicer, the president’s former press secretary, told me. “In this case,” Joe Biden, Trump’s presumptive general-election opponent, “is left on the sidelines.”
No president has used the bully pulpit quite like Trump in this moment. Before the Great Pandemic came the Great Depression. At the time, Franklin D. Roosevelt used his fireside chats to reassure the country, preparing carefully with his speechwriters, Doris Kearns Goodwin, the presidential biographer, told me. “He wanted to make sure he had the right language, the right message, and the right data coming forward.” Trump’s news conferences, by contrast, spin off in all directions: ungrateful governors and Facebook followers, impeachment and Biden—lots of Biden.
But imagery could work in his favor. Trump stands behind a lectern adorned with the presidential seal. He holds news conferences in the iconic Rose Garden. Flanking him most days is Anthony Fauci, a public-health expert so admired that his face is now imprinted on bobblehead dolls, and whose mere presence lends authority to a president whom many Americans don’t trust to speak truthfully about the threat. (Twitter lights up in alarm whenever Fauci doesn’t appear alongside Trump, though a White House aide told me the absences are only because the doctor needs time to rest or work.)