Could the coronavirus, which emanated from China, play a role in the election of our next president? First the Russians, now the Chinese? The conspiracy theorists are having a ball.
If you ever doubted how connected our world has become, the emergence of the coronavirus has made that reality crystal clear. What started as an outbreak in the province of Wuhan only weeks ago has already spread worldwide, sickening and killing thousands and costing the global economy trillions of dollars. Last week, the U.S. stock market dropped 13% from its peak and erased $3.6 trillion in market value due to the virus’s feared economic impact.
The potential for a U.S. recession has risen dramatically. Although we’ve been bucking the global slowdown trend, several sectors of our economy were already showing signs of weakness, including manufacturing and transportation. Should the virus spread as predicted, consumer spending could slow dramatically as people stay home, pushing the U.S. into a recession.
A slowdown in our economy could have big electoral implications. A strong economy has put wind in the sails of Trump’s re-election efforts. With near full employment and incomes rising at all levels, Democrats face an uphill battle to retake the White House as Americans generally vote with their pocketbooks. The developing “capitalism versus socialism” narrative does nothing to improve Democrats’ chances, as most Americans appreciate that socialism is a very bad idea.
However, a widespread coronavirus outbreak could change everything. If companies are forced to lay off workers because consumers have cut their spending, the “It’s the economy, stupid” advantage Trump enjoys could be mitigated.
But a potential crisis also brings an opportunity to lead and to rise above partisan politics. Democrats have shown they will stop at nothing to bring down the president. The fabricated Russian collusion, followed by the partisan impeachment, has likely bolstered Trump’s re-election efforts as Americans tire of the unrelenting partisanship.
The Democrats’ decision to now criticize Trump for his handling of the coronavirus (despite the fact that his early action of banning entry by most foreign nationals who had recently visited China appears to have initially mitigated the spread of the virus here) is predictable.
We look to our leaders to remain calm and take decisive action in times of crisis. Trump has outperformed his critics’ expectations on the international stage. He now will be tested on the homefront.
Trump has charged Indiana’s Mike Pence to lead our government’s response. The administration’s critics are already criticizing Vice President Pence’s health care record from his time as Indiana’s governor. They claim the needle-exchange program in Scott County could have been initiated earlier to stem the HIV outbreak. But Pence did make the right decision to implement the program, despite initial reservations, and by all accounts, it worked.
If Trump and Pence can bring calm to a rattled electorate and contain the spread of the virus in the U.S., they will have shown strong leadership and likely will be rewarded in November. On the other hand, if the virus spreads, the economy sputters and the government’s response appears inept, the virus might play a role in returning a Democrat to the White House.
The most basic function of government is to keep the homeland safe. No matter your political leanings, we should put the health of all Americans ahead of political jockeying and hope that our government’s response to the coronavirus is effective and successful at limiting the human and economic toll.•
Feltman, a former secretary of commerce, is a shareholder in IBJ Corp. Send email to [email protected]