WASHINGTON — With the economy faltering and the political landscape unsettled as the coronavirus death toll climbs, a stark and unavoidable question now confronts President Trump and his advisers: Can he save his campaign for re-election when so much is suddenly going so wrong?
After three years of Republicans’ championing signs of financial prosperity that were to be Mr. Trump’s chief re-election argument, the president has never needed a new message to voters as he does now, not to mention luck. At this point, the president has one clear option for how to proceed politically, and is hoping that an array of factors will break his way.
The option, which he has brazenly pushed in recent days, is to cast himself as a “wartime president” who looks in charge of a nation under siege while his likely Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., is largely out of sight hunkered down in Delaware. This gambit, however, requires a rewriting of history — Mr. Trump’s muted approach to the virus early on — and it’s far from clear if many voters will accept the idea of him as a wartime leader.
Then there are other variables that he and his allies hope will fall in their favor: that the outbreak of the virus will slow and, in the warmer months, dissipate; that the states will get it under control; that the federal government’s steps taken so far will flatten the curve; that Mr. Biden and the Democrats will look impotent and inconsequential by comparison; and that enough voters will move past his initial efforts to play down the virus’s dangers.
In perhaps the best-case scenario for Mr. Trump, the patina of a “wartime president” could prove to be influential with casual voters who don’t dig into the details of his belated response to the coronavirus, which included dismissing the criticism of his handling of the threat as a Democratic “hoax” and contributing to a slow start in testing for the virus.
“He is counting on people being so traumatized on a day-to-day basis that they will forget his inaction,” said Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University. “It’s better for him to be a wartime commander in chief than someone who, when the big crisis hit, misread it completely.”
Politically, Mr. Brinkley said, the new posture made sense. “He can claim credit for the curve flattening at some point,” he said, “and hope people will be afraid to push a leader out of office if the crisis pushes into the fall.”
The president’s course correction showed some quick results that were seized on by his political advisers. An ABC News poll released last week showed that 55 percent of Americans approved of Mr. Trump’s response to the pandemic, up from 43 percent the week before.