President Donald Trump appeared to be a defeated man stepping off Marine One in the middle of the night directly following his campaign’s dismal rally in Tulsa, Okla. The commander in chief appeared diminished and disheveled as he walked across the South Lawn of the White House. It was a striking image for political observers, given how much focus and attention the incumbent president places on made-for-TV moments and appearances.
Last month, CNN released a poll showing Trump losing to former Vice President Joe Biden by a 14-point margin, 55 percent to 41 percent. Almost immediately, the president took to Twitter to air his grievances with the poll, calling CNN polls “fake” and threatening legal action against the network for publishing their findings. However, just one week later, Fox News reported a similar spread between the two contenders, with Biden leading Trump by 12 points.
Key to these lopsided polling results four months out from the election has been the widening gap in the president’s approval rating with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as his tone-deaf — and often inappropriate — response to the Black Lives Matter movement and protests across the country. In the same Fox News poll, 61 percent of voters disapprove of the president’s “handling of race relations.” Similarly, just 1 in 3 Americans believe the president when it comes to COVID-19, according to a Pew research study analyzing the past three months of the virus in this country.
A number of recent articles paint a picture of a president aimless and a White House without direction in the wake of the coronavirus spiking and remembrances of the Confederacy disappearing from the public view, despite Trump’s foolhardy attempts to save them.
Writing in The New York Times, Maggie Haberman and Annie Karni describe White House and campaign aides furiously trying to reign in a commander-in-chief retreating inward toward his basic political instincts. “[Aides] say his repeated acts of political self-sabotage — a widely denounced photo-op at a church for which peaceful protesters were forcibly removed and a threat to use the American military to quell protests — have significantly damaged his re-election prospects, and yet he appears mostly unable, or unwilling, to curtail them,” Haberman and Karni write. They go on to describe Trump as “acting trapped and defensive,” leaving advisers to “wonder if he is truly interested in serving a second term.”
COVID-19 has severely limited the number of campaign-focused appearances Trump has been able to make since the pandemic reached America’s shores. Even his beloved Mar-a-Lago resort, a seasonal refuge for the president, has been out of reach for Trump and his family, and with the virus spiking in the Sunshine State, it’s likely that he will forgo visiting for the rest of the season. Travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders have affected all Americans, but for a politician who feeds off the energy and excitement from public events with base supporters, these past few months have been excruciating.
In a rare recent outing, Trump participated in a Fox News town hall hosted by Sean Hannity in Green Bay, Wis. Trump’s reelection numbers in Wisconsin — a must-win defensive state — have been dismal. In a poll released by Siena College and The New York Times on the day of the town hall, the former vice president was leading the incumbent by 11 points, 49 percent to 38 percent.
The most interesting exchange between Hannity and the president occurred when the Fox host asked Trump about his goals for a second term. In a rambling, semi-coherent response, the president weighed the differences between talent and experience without providing any insights on the next four years of a Trump administration. Kevin Liptak, writing for CNN, analyzed Trump’s response: “the answer encapsulated what some of Trump’s political advisers fear is an unfocused approach to reelection a little more than four months before ballots are cast.”
As we all know, four months is an eternity in politics. Consider that just four months ago, on March 1, only two Americans had died from COVID-19. The virus was isolated mostly to the West Coast, and New York had only just confirmed its first case. Both Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were still alive and well.
But four months is also a limited amount of time to counter these lopsided polls and strong negative feelings expressed by a clear majority of American voters, especially in key battleground states.
It’s increasingly clear Donald Trump is either unwilling or unable to stem that tide.