The America First presidency collided with a global pandemic Wednesday night. The result did not appear to reassure skittish markets or a nervous nation.
President Donald Trump relied on a familiar playbook as he spoke in a prime-time address from the Oval Office, announcing sweeping new restrictions on travel from Europe and scattered executive actions to help workers and businesses rocked by what he labeled a “foreign virus.”
He blamed allies for not adopting tough immigration measures that he said had prevented a wider outbreak in the US But the combative approach and small-bore measures seemed only to highlight the president’s struggles to confront the most consequential moment of his presidency.
And even in a 10-minute address, Trump couldn’t stick to the facts.
He overstated the European travel restrictions, saying he was “suspending all travel” from the continent, and suggested they would also apply to trade. He tweeted later that trade wouldn’t be affected, and the Department of Homeland Security clarified that the restriction applies generally to foreigners who’ve been in Europe within 14 days.
He said US health insurers had agreed to waive co-payments for coronavirus treatment. A spokeswoman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, a trade group, said its members had agreed only to waive co-payments for testing.
‘Isn’t much confidence’
The speech clearly underwhelmed investors, who have been waiting for a “major” economic plan the president promised on Monday and has yet to put to paper.
Futures on the benchmark S&P 500 index steadily deteriorated as details of Trump’s plan leaked out over the dinnertime hours in New York. Down about 0.8% when his remarks began, the loss extended to 2% by the time the president finished speaking and got worse from there.
“Investors are looking for bold government stimulus. So far we haven’t seen a lot of detail and there isn’t much confidence it will happen quick enough,” said Nathan Thooft, Manulife Investment Management’s head of global asset allocation.
Trump’s most ambitious proposals include a suspension of US payroll taxes, paid sick leave for hourly workers and $50 billion in additional loans for small businesses. Both Democrats and Republicans have expressed reticence about a payroll tax cut, and about three hours after his address, House Democrats released their own plan to fight economic fallout from the virus that served to highlight how modest Trump’s offering sounded.
The Democratic plan includes free coronavirus testing, paid emergency leave for workers, food security assistance and other measures to help ordinary Americans weather the outbreak.
The address demonstrated that for the president, the coronavirus remains a foreign problem that can be resolved with a characteristically Trump approach: Closing US borders. He hardly acknowledged the spread of the virus within the country, where there are now more than 1 300 cases and 38 people have died.
“We are moving very quickly, and for the vast majority of Americans, the risk is very, very low,” Trump said, once again describing the threat in more optimistic language than US health authorities use. “Young and healthy people can expect to recover fully and quickly if they should get the virus,” he added.
Trump appealed to Americans to wash their hands and stay home if they’re ill. He said nothing about the US delay in testing potentially infected people that has left public health authorities blind to the spread of the disease. “Testing and testing capabilities are expanding rapidly, day by day,” the president said.
But beginning within minutes of Trump’s address, events rapidly demonstrated the extent of the crisis. The American movie star Tom Hanks and his wife, the actress Rita Wilson, announced they were infected, and the National Basketball Association suspended its season after Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus. Twitter told all of its employees to work from home. Senator Maria Cantwell, a Washington State Democrat, said a staffer in her Washington, DC, office had tested positive for the virus.
The White House said after his speech that Trump had canceled plans to travel this week to Nevada and Colorado, and his campaign said an event with Roman Catholics planned for Milwaukee — announced just a day earlier — has also been canceled.
The crisis has gone to the heart of core, unresolved questions about Trump’s presidency: whether his streak of economic growth could be maintained through Election Day, if he could suppress his penchant for bold proclamations and political warfare as experts issued dire warnings about the disease, and how a West Wing staffed by novices and defiant outsiders would navigate the complexities of a true crisis.
Early reviews — based on both public opinion and the reaction of financial markets that Trump himself has called the best barometer of his success — have not been kind.
Just 43% of Americans approve of the president’s handling of the outbreak while 49% do not, according to a Quinnipiac University survey released Monday. And only 41% of Americans approve of Trump’s overall job performance, with a majority — 54% — disapproving.
Americans considering whether to re-elect Trump in November will get a look on Thursday at how the crisis might have been handled in a different administration. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the front-runner to challenge the incumbent president, will deliver a speech on the virus, after announcing a Public Health Advisory Committee on Wednesday to provide his campaign “science-based, expert advice” on the outbreak.
© 2020 Bloomberg L.P.