In 1990, young tennis phenom Andre Agassi appeared in a camera commercial. Agassi, under his tousled heavy metal hair, lowered a pair of sunglasses, stared at the camera and said the ad's tagline: “Image is Everything.”
President Trump’s plan to deal with the coronavirus pandemic is similar to this long ago commercial. Image is everything. And for Trump’s supporters, nothing should be more worrisome.
In the practice of politics, optics is often used as a synonym for image. Others discuss image as a “communications issue.” But regardless of what you call it, these terms contrast with substance. The focus is on how things are presented, rather than how things actually are.
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The Trump Administration’s strategy with the coronavirus pandemic is to focus on how things are presented. Last week, a White House official said that their message would shift to focusing on the fact the virus will continue to be around and that the country must press forward despite the virus. The official was quoted as saying “we need to live with it.”
In a July 4 speech, President Trump put that strategy into practice, saying of cases of coronavirus “99 of which are totally harmless.” The president and his advisers have focused on opening back up the country in an effort to boost the economy, despite the damage to the economy coming from the danger created by the virus.
This week, Trump called for schools to reopen this fall, tweeing “In Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and many other countries, SCHOOLS ARE OPEN WITH NO PROBLEMS...May cut off funding if not open!”
Trump’s statement ignored the fact that schools in those countries can open because of their governments’ success in crushing the coronavirus. Cases, hospitalizations and deaths have all declined to small numbers, and residents there do not “have to live with it.”
On the economy and on schools, the president has focused on image -- whether it appears that things are back to normal. What he has not done is focus on reducing the spread of the virus so that things can actually get back to normal.
What does the President plan to do about the coronavirus? In a recent interview with Blake Burman of Fox Business, the president said that “I think that at some point that’s going to sort of just disappear, I hope.”
The president has also tried to shift the national issue agenda to heritage, focusing on defending statues targeted and toppled by leftist protestors angered by the killing of George Floyd. The president signed an executive order calling for building statues of 31 Americans as part of a “National Garden” of heroes. This is an issue literally all about image.
Can this strategy of “image is everything” work to bring the president back from his polling deficit to Joe Biden? As a political scientist I am very skeptical.
The two biggest factors which explain a president’s approval ratings are the state of the economy and casualty rates in a war the U.S. is fighting at the time. In pithier terms, peace and prosperity.
When the nation is at peace and the economy is doing well, presidents running for reelection win easily (see Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton). When the economy is poor or the war is going poorly, incumbents (Carter and G.H.W. Bush) or their successors (Humphrey and McCain) tend to lose.
This president is of course running for reelection during a time of intense economic pain, as unemployment rates increased quickly as a result of the pandemic. And if one thinks of deaths from the coronavirus as a 2020 stand-in for casualty rates, one can see why the president is substantially behind Joe Biden in the polls.
Incumbents running during economic downturns and unpopular wars tried to spin their way out of political trouble. They try to find the right rhetorical strategy to overcome the electoral drag they were facing. None have been successful so far.
What should Republicans do right now? Publicly, it makes sense to support the president and offer a unified partisan front. Privately, they should be screaming with their hair on fire at the White House to change strategy, and change quickly. Getting the president to reverse course and focus on containing and eliminating the virus is the best strategy for not only returning the economy and the school system to normal, but also to boost the president’s chances of winning reelection.
On the economy, congressional Republicans passed and President Trump signed significant economic stimulus in March and April when the pandemic first began and businesses needed to close. Economists believe that these efforts are helping the economy.
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Current reporting says that the White House is supporting more economic stimulus, but wants to limit the overall price tag to $1 trillion because of concern over the federal budget deficit. More economic stimulus is needed, and it is good that the White House is supporting it. But limiting the amount of economic relief seems both economically and politically blinkered. Boosting the economy is essential to the president’s reelection efforts.
In short, Republicans need to encourage real, not cosmetic, improvement in public health and the economy. Changes in image, optics, and communications seem unlikely to help the President’s public standing much.
The “image is everything” Andre Agassi of the early 1990s was a maddeningly inconsistent tennis player, focused more on his image than his game. At one point, injured and in a failing marriage to actress Brooke Shields fell to 114th in world tennis rankings.
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Agassi resurrected his career by embracing a new conditioning routine, working his way back up through the minor league tennis circuits and finding a long-term stable marriage with fellow tennis legend Steffi Graf. Shorn of his legendary hair, a bald Agassi won five more grand slam titles and regained the world’s #1 ranking.
Andre Agassi did better when image was not everything. There is a lesson in that story for Donald Trump.
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