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Trump labels himself 'wartime president' as virus erases market gains

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A strong American economy has always been US President Donald Trump's primary case for re-election, but that argument is gone now, with the fallout from the pandemic.

Washington

PRESIDENT Donald Trump declared himself a "wartime president" on Wednesday, his latest attempt to influence public perception of his handling of a novel coronavirus outbreak that is swiftly reshaping the presidential campaign.

It came on the same day the stock market nearly erased all the gains since his inauguration. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has lost more than 30 per cent of its value in just over a month, putting the rally that began on Election Day in jeopardy. The S&P 500 fell as much as 9.8 per cent on Wednesday before a late-session bounce, and bonds tumbled around the world.

A strong American economy has always been Mr Trump's primary case for re-election, and he has often touted the rising stock market as a sign of his success. But that argument is gone now with the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.

"The economy was the main strength of the argument to the American people that he deserved a second term," said Matthew Continetti, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

"He's been deprived of that argument. It doesn't matter if he's responsible for it. He's not. But that won't really matter to voters if we have high levels of unemployment and a recession."

Mr Trump abandoned past presidents' reticence to comment on every rise and fall of the markets, since they have almost no control over the numbers. By contrast, he treated it as a numerical sign of his personal and political success, and held it out as a tangible way that voters benefited from his being in office, through their investments and 401(k), which is a tax-deferred, contribution retirement plan.

The shift to military language to describe his administration's battle against an "invisible enemy" is a tougher sell, especially following his struggle to get the initial response to the novel coronavirus right, including weeks when he sought to downplay its severity. But it is one that fits his natural approach to campaigning.

"His instinct is to be aggressive, his instinct is to frame things in terms of America versus others or versus a threat," said Daron Shaw, a political science professor at the University of Texas-Austin.

"Identifying the virus as the enemy and talking about this in combat terms - I think that's smart politics and is probably appropriate. It suits him and it's probably not the worst thing politically either, to talk in these terms," he said.

Response to his handling of the virus crisis has mirrored his polarised presidency. An NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll released Tuesday showed that 49 per cent of Americans disapproved of Mr Trump's handling of the virus and 44 per cent approved.

The results of Tuesday's Democratic primaries made it all but certain that he will face former Vice-President Joe Biden in the fall. Mr Biden has received high marks, even from Republicans, for speeches in which he lays out how he would handle the crisis if he were president.

At a White House news conference, Mr Trump invoked measures taken during World War II, saying workers refused to go home, slept on factory floors and built ships, "and now it's our time, we must sacrifice together because we are all in this together. We'll come through together".

Americans tend to rally around a wartime president, as they did around George W Bush in the aftermath of 9/11. However, with Americans having become so polarised in recent years, the "rules of yesterday" may not be applicable, said Rob Jesmer, a Republican strategist.

The virus has also deprived the president of his signature rallies, where he reinforces the support of his most ardent voters. He is instead left to Twitter and the White House briefing room, where he had rarely appeared previously.

"The way that President Trump handles the coronavirus situation and what happens with the economy will determine what happens in November," said Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist. "The incumbent has an advantage, but with that advantage goes with both the opportunity to shine and flub it."

The Trump campaign sent an e-mail to supporters Wednesday, saying "China's Foreign Ministry is pushing online conspiracy theories specifically intended to undermine the fact that the Wuhan coronavirus originated in China".

"That's definitely red meat for the base," said Tammy Vigil, a professor of communication at Boston University. "It certainly makes it seem like we're being invaded by these outsiders. It's certainly messaging for the base, but also something that he believes, this external threat." BLOOMBERG