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3 Reasons Coronavirus Could Prove Trump’s Greatest November Foe

Donald and Melania Trump at Joint Base Andrews. The White House/Andrea Hanks.

Long before the sun rose Thursday, British regional airline Flybe collapsed. Americans probably haven’t heard of it, but when an Englishman flew domestically there was a 40 percent chance it was with Flybe. Its final demise was swift and brutal: Passengers booked to fly as soon as that morning receiving a 2 a.m. text message informing them otherwise. The company employed 2,300 people, and its 1,300 pensioned employees are now “facing financial ruin.”

Flybe had been struggling for years, with investors losing money and a government bailout in the works, but executives say its final cause of death was the spread of Coronavirus, which demolished incoming cash flow.

Some competing airline executives call this an excuse from a failing company, but true or not, Flybe won’t be the only Coronavirus bankruptcy. The disease’s effect on airlines is “almost without precedent,” the CEO of the International Air Transport Association said in a statement predicting between $63 and $113 billion in industry losses. “It has a 9/11-like feel,” Southwest CEO Gary Kelly echoed Thursday. Southwest, he notes, is “97 percent domestic.” American domestic.

That’s just the airlines. And it’s a sign of what U.S. citizens can prepare for in the coming weeks as we watch to see if the virus’s first First-World hosts, Italy and South Korea, are able to grapple with its spread and impact. Time is not an ally.

With a visibly aged Joe Biden duking it out with socialist Bernie Sanders, there are three very good reasons that President Trump’s greatest opponent in November could be the Coronavirus.

First, the ability to handle a possible medical crisis and the hard choices the triage of limited supplies would then force on us will leave a lasting impact with the American public. Second, the economic consequences spreading through U.S. cities and towns will force Republicans in government to choose between saying this is all partisan hype and executing a plan to protect the gains of the last three years. Third, the potential medical scare lends rhetorical energy to a number of Democrat talking points they’re guaranteed to use in the general election.

The voluntary social separation Americans are already moving toward will go a long way toward curbing the continued spread of the virus, hopefully even to the point that the situation can be handled and all forgotten. In the meantime, emergency spending to bulk up medical supplies and prepare personnel is crucial. The $8.3 billion bill the president signed Friday to aid states and research in the fight goes a long way toward that.

It’s reassuring to hear White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow say the government is communicating with the airlines, thinking of the “small businesses that might get hurt by this,” and of the “individuals who might lose paychecks because they had to stay home if they get the virus.” It is not, however, reassuring to hear Kudlow claim during the same interview that the virus “looks relatively contained” and that Americans should simply “avoid” Seattle.

The disease will threaten the existence of many small and medium businesses, and if Republicans are not drafting legislation to help them –like, say, interest-free loans over the coming months– they are behind. Recession is fatal to reelection, with William McKinley the last president to win in the midst of one — 120 years ago.

Coronavirus is on the loose and spreading by the hour in populations across the country, and we have no idea where the large majority of America’s infected patients contracted the disease. In addition, we know little about the true nature of the virus, and what we do know shows us there is not yet some miraculous First-World technology to protect us.

What will be needed is old fashioned: hospital beds, ventilators, and N95 respirator masks for medical personnel — three things the United States does not have nearly enough of. For example, “we currently have 30 million N95 respirators in the strategic national stockpile,” Health and Human Services Sec. Alex Azar told senators Feb. 24. The department estimates the country will need 300 million. The government does not have a national stockpile of ventilators.

Democrats have already seized on the crisis, much to the public ire of the president, and free health-care-for-all is a campaign call that will be specifically energized by the pandemic. In addition to serious governance and the action necessary to stave off a recession, the president must make the case to reelect the administration responsible for so much economic success.

So what does Trump have in his pocket? First, his hawkish push to bring American manufacturing home from countries like China looks near prophetic in the face of the country’s responsibility for yet another global pandemic as well as the looming medical supply shortages from Chinese producers. Second, his focus on securing the border is empowered– especially when contrasted with increasingly shrill Democratic calls against any enforcement at all. Finally, his quick move to curtail Chinese nationals from traveling to the United States slowed the virus’s move here a great deal despite, for example, the obscene New York Times claim actions targeting the host country are “xenophobic.”

So far he’s stressed the third point but the first two, not so much. Compare this to President Barack Obama’s administration, which never let “a serious crisis go to waste.”

In all of this, the president and his lieutenants will have to be careful. While his base often rejoices in the president skipping the nuances of political correctness, in this case nuance and cool judgement will be central. “Pandemics are difficult to talk about,” former Health and Human Services Sec. Mike Leavitt correctly warns. “Anything said in advance of a pandemic seems alarmist. After a pandemic begins, anything one has said or done is inadequate.”

Coronavirus might prove the administration’s great crisis, and its leadership will prove crucial in staving off worst-case scenarios or dealing with them when they come. Simply downplaying events and assuring the public everything is under control does not suffice. In addition to swift action to curb infection and shore up the economy, now is the time for Trump and his allies to show the public they are up to the job — and deserve it for the next four years.