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Trump’s push to reopen Pennsylvania adds 2020 politics to a heated coronavirus debate

President Donald Trump’s message to Pennsylvania this week made it clear: He is prioritizing a rapid economic rebound as the key to the country’s revival from the coronavirus — and to his own political fate.

President Donald Trump speaks to workers during a visit to the Owens & Minor medical equipment distribution center just outside Allentown, Pa., on May 14, 2020.
President Donald Trump speaks to workers during a visit to the Owens & Minor medical equipment distribution center just outside Allentown, Pa., on May 14, 2020.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

President Donald Trump’s message to Pennsylvania this week made it clear: He is prioritizing a rapid economic rebound as the key to the country’s revival — and his own political fate.

Using his Twitter feed and a presidential visit, Trump weighed in on a fraught debate roiling a state vital to the 2020 reelection campaign, pressing Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, to move faster to reopen the state’s economy.

Trump, politically damaged by his handling of the coronavirus pandemic so far, is openly casting himself as a hero of the next phase, promising to lead an economic “transition to greatness” that carries him into November’s election. Pennsylvania is critical to that effort as one of a handful of states likely to decide the presidential race.

“We have to get your governor of Pennsylvania to start opening up a little bit," Trump said Thursday at a medical-supply warehouse outside Allentown. "You have areas of Pennsylvania that are barely affected and they want to keep them closed, you can’t do that.” (Wolf has eased restrictions in some areas that have recorded few cases, though hard-hit places like the Philadelphia region remain shuttered).

His drive to jump-start the economy, despite warnings from his own administration’s medical experts, has layered political tension onto an already wrenching, weighty policy argument about balancing the health risks of a virus that has killed more than 87,000 Americans against economic decimation that has left 36 million without work, and much of the country stuck at home.

While Trump says lives and livelihoods are at stake if the country doesn’t open faster, his critics argue that the president has put his political needs — and divisiveness — ahead of science and a unified national message.

“Anybody with as much leadership capacity as, you know, a Little League coach knows that you’ve got to pull people together to do something hard and motivate and inspire them that way, and I think the best governors have done that in addition to trying to do the policy things," former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg said in an interview. But Trump, he said, "is somebody who seems to think that it’s all about him, who’s more preoccupied with how he feels he’s getting treated than whether we’re all going to live or die, and is concerned to the point of obsession with his own politics.”

Trump’s push represents a risky bet, both for the country’s health and prosperity, and his own political calculations. Strong majorities of voters still think it’s more important to prioritize safety over reopening the economy, numerous polls have shown, and most states fall short of even the loose reopening guidelines his administration has set down.

But recent surveys suggest that views of the coronavirus response, after largely avoiding the country’s usual polarization, are drifting toward familiar divides. Multiple surveys this week showed a growing share of Republicans who say it’s time to put the economy first, a theme the president has hammered. Ahead of his Pennsylvania visit, Trump criticized “blue state” governors for moving too slowly for “political purposes.”

“Reopen” protests staged outside capitols in Pennsylvania and Michigan have been dotted with Trump paraphernalia, and in Wisconsin, the state’s Republican Party won a court case Wednesday that lifted the Democratic governor’s restrictions.

“It’s real simple,” said state Sen. Vince Hughes (D., Philadelphia). “The Republican agenda is principally focused on November and the elections. Trump is doing a horrific job and it’s dragging down the entire Republican brand. ... The way for them to be successful is to cause chaos and confusion. It’s a damn shame, because it does a disservice to the people.”

In Pennsylvania, Republicans in the state legislature and county offices are stoking fury at Wolf, urging him to loosen the restrictions and threatening open defiance of the rules.

“Help us defeat Wolf’s tyranny,” read one Trump supporter’s sign outside the president’s stop Thursday. Protesters followed Trump’s visit with another Harrisburg rally Friday.

Republicans push back against the suggestion that their criticism is part of a political calculation. They argue that Wolf has overstepped his constitutional powers and has refused to collaborate. They point to the declining case count in Pennsylvania and the worst unemployment since the Great Depression, and say the economic toll now outweighs the health risk. They also point to data showing that many parts of the state have seen few confirmed coronavirus cases.

“It’s now clear that there is little or no risk that we’re going to overwhelm the capacity of our hospitals," U.S. Sen Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) said at a recent online roundtable. “Having said that, the shutdown has imposed a massive cost.”

Trump and fellow Republicans, however, are arguing against the weight of public opinion and the administration’s own medical experts, including Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease doctor. Fauci said Tuesday that reopening the economy too quickly could lead to avoidable “suffering and death,” and an even longer economic setback if restrictions have to be slapped back into place.

High marks for governors who shut down early

The absence of a detailed, coherent federal response has left governors to make the hard decisions about balancing economic damage and public health, even as the administration has delayed detailed guidelines drawn up by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If they succeed [Trump] can say how good he was and how smart he was and how perfect his performance was," said Max Skidmore, a University of Missouri-Kansas City political science professor and author of the book Presidents, Pandemics and Politics. "And if they fail, of course it’s their fault, they should have been better.”

Polls consistently show that voters trust their governors far more than they do the president — underscoring that, despite his command of the national stage, Trump is a weakened messenger on this issue. Only 36% of adults trust the president as a source of coronavirus information, according to a CNN poll released Tuesday.

Meanwhile, some 72% of Pennsylvanians approve of Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s handling of the coronavirus, and 77% approve of New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s work on the issue, according to a Washington Post-Ipsos poll concluded May 4.

Other governors in both parties rated even higher. Trump’s approval on the pandemic stood at 43%.

The governors with the lowest approval ratings were those who resisted calls for lockdowns and reopened the quickest.

“Citizens in an emergency want to feel the sort of comfort of a leader taking responsibility and being accountable for it, and I think that the president has been a textbook case in how not to lead in a crisis,” said J.J. Abbott, a former senior adviser to Wolf.

Even if Pennsylvanians don’t agree with all of Wolf’s specific actions, they do support “a more thoughtful and methodical approach” to reopening the economy, Abbott said.

Indeed, 74% of Americans said the country should keep trying to slow the virus, according to the Post survey, even if it means keeping businesses closed. The Pew Research Center found similar results: 68% of Americans said they are more concerned about lifting coronavirus-related restrictions too quickly than too slowly.

Those findings include large numbers of Republicans who support the restrictions, and much less polarization than on most hot-button issues.

But that may be shifting.

The Pew poll also found a small dip in the share of Republicans who were more worried about opening too fast and an increase in those worried about going too slowly. In the Post survey, 92% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents favored closures, but that number was just 49% for Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.

A Politico/Morning Consult poll released Wednesday saw an even more dramatic disparity. While 60% of voters still said the government should prioritize health concerns over the economy, the share of Republicans who feel that way fell from 65% to 43%.

“I talked to one Democratic governor recently who said he felt like a switch was flipped the moment the president started talking about ‘liberate,’ ” Buttigieg said, referring to Trump tweets supporting protesters who have criticized restrictions in several states. “It suddenly became political in a way it hadn’t been before and it really wrecked an opportunity to have a nonpartisan understanding.”

Pressure from all sides

Trump is counting on voters in November ultimately placing more weight on an economic rebound than his early work on the virus.

“The president’s going to be judged more by how we come out of this coronavirus pandemic rather than how we got into it,” said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster who has advised candidates in Pennsylvania.

Asked about the criticism Trump faces over early missteps, Newhouse said, “voters are more concerned about what’s in front of them rather than what’s behind them.”

Some of the growing split can also be tied to geographic differences in the virus’ spread, which in many ways overlaps existing political divides.

Rural areas, which tend to vote Republican, have generally seen less severe outbreaks. That includes Central, Northeastern, and Southwestern Pennsylvania, according to researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania.

Cities, which tend to vote Democratic, have been hardest-hit, including Philadelphia and its immediate suburbs. African Americans and Latinos have also been disproportionately stricken.

The debate isn’t entirely partisan. Some Republican governors have moved cautiously on reopening, and some Democrats, including Wolf, are taking steps to ease restrictions.

And county officials in Democratic-led Delaware and Bucks Counties have pressed Wolf to allow them to take more steps to restart their economies.

Wolf acknowledged the “heavy” economic toll, and as of Friday 37 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties had moved to the “yellow phase” of his three-step reopening plan. But he said that without containing the virus and making people feel safe to go out, economies will still struggle.

“In the end the ultimate goal is to defeat the virus," he said Monday. "If we don’t do that, nothing else we do matters.”

Angela Couloumbis of SpotlightPA contributed to this report.