Trump's Big Gamble on Reopening America Is Backfiring

A few weeks ago, as the pandemic tore a huge hole in the American economy, and damaged a foundation stone of his re-election campaign, President Donald Trump heaped pressure on state governors to reopen swiftly.

Trump hoped to enter the 2020 election having overseen the continuation of America's longest-ever run of economic growth along with record employment numbers. COVID-19 shredded all that.

The solution became obvious: A rapid recovery from the economic crisis. By quickly reopening states from lockdowns, a V-shaped recovery would take shape over the summer as Americans returned to work, production lines hummed with activity, and dollars fluttered into cash registers.

It was a solution Trump picked up and ran with, though he met resistance from governors of the worst-affected states, including New York's Andrew Cuomo and Washington's Jay Inslee. Still, Trump pushed and pushed America towards reopening as health experts pleaded for caution.

This high-stakes gamble had profound risks, which, as tens of thousands of Americans died with COVID-19, Trump understood. "We have a great country. We can't keep it closed. This is the United States of America," Trump told reporters on May 5 during a trip to a mask factory in Arizona.

"I created, with a lot of other very talented people and the people of our country, the greatest economy in the history of the world...and then one day they said we have to close our country. Well, now it's time to open it up.

"And you know what? The people of our country are warriors, and I'm looking at it. I'm not saying anything is perfect. And yes, will some people be affected? Yes. Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open and we have to get it open soon."

That gamble appears to be backfiring on the president. Though the U.S. is still early in its move towards reopening, there are alarming signs from states that made the move sooner than others, or barely shut down at all even as the pandemic raged around them.

Texas has walked back on reopening as new case numbers swell, ordering the partial closure of many businesses. Arizona hit pause on its reopening and may soon follow Texas in tightening again.

Across the six key swing states at the 2020 election—Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, and Arizona—the number of new coronavirus cases is on the rise again in each after reopening began.

If this is the unfolding of a much-feared second wave, then the recovery is off.

More lockdowns are all-but-inevitable, and, even if officials do not shut down to the same degree, Americans may be less inclined to leave their homes anyway, daisy-cutting the recovery's green shoots.

This cautiousness was reflected in Trump's disappointing rally at Tulsa, Oklahoma, where just 6,200 of his supporters turned out in a 19,000 capacity arena for what the campaign billed as a sellout event. Worry about Oklahoma's spiraling COVID-19 case numbers kept many away.

In the economy, there are some concerning numbers. While jobless claims have slowly declined in number for the past 12 weeks, they remain stubbornly high. This week alone, 1.48 million people made new unemployment claims, taking the total since March 21 to 47.3 million.

The business directory Yelp said of the 140,000 businesses it has listed as closed since March, 41 percent have indicated the shuttering is permanent.

The New York Fed's Weekly Economic Index, which monitors high-frequency data to show a close-to-realtime picture, looks more positive, with the beginning of what appears to be a V-shaped recovery.

However, the index notes that its strong reading for the week of June 13 was later revised down because of Thursday's jobless claims data "which provided a weaker signal of recovery than previously available data."

Others, such as Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon, the consultancy Capital Economics, and research by State Street and MIT, have said a recovery to pre-pandemic levels of economic output could take a long time, perhaps even years, given the scale of the recession.

"We expect GDP in the second quarter to contract at a 40 percent annualized pace. The need for an extended period of physical distancing measures is why we anticipate economic activity remaining well below its pre-virus trend over the coming years," Capital Economics said in a recent note.

Still, if those who say a V-shaped recovery is underway are right—and there are many of them—it is conditional on there being no second wave of infection, which, if it followed a similar path to the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, could be worse than the first.

To add to Trump's reopening problem, beyond what might be the triggering of a second wave, he is getting little or no credit in the polls for any recovery that is perhaps developing. This week was one of his, if not the, worst for polling.

A swathe of credible polls put Trump behind the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden both nationally--by several points--and in many of the swing states he needs to win if he is to serve a second term.

Moreover, Trump's approval rating is poor and has worsened sharply during the pandemic, according to a FiveThirtyEight tracker, which takes a weighted average of the polling. Trump's response to COVID-19, and the recent protests, have dragged down public opinion of his presidency.

Still, it is early in the summer and lessons have been learned, at a terrible cost, about COVID-19. The recent spike in cases may either be a temporary blip, or, even if not, officials are significantly better prepared now than they were at the dawn of the pandemic.

Come the election, it may be that Trump's gamble to reopen paid off, providing the number of deaths slows substantially further and the cogs of the American economy grind fast once again.

But, as it stands today, there are many question marks hanging overhead.

For now, states are attempting to balance public health and economic necessity, as Congress and the Trump administration negotiate yet another stimulus package.

"The last thing we want to do as a state is go backwards and close down businesses. This temporary pause will help our state corral the spread until we can safely enter the next phase of opening our state for business," said Texas Gov. Abbott in a statement on Thursday.

"I ask all Texans to do their part to slow the spread of COVID-19 by wearing a mask, washing their hands regularly, and socially distancing from others. The more that we all follow these guidelines, the safer our state will be and the more we can open up Texas for business."

Just a day later, Texas was closing businesses down again.

The White House has been asked for comment.

Trump Economy
President Donald J. Trump at a press conference in the Rose Garden on Wednesday, June 24, 2020 in Washington, DC. Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty