The coronavirus pandemic is continuing to hit American businesses and families hard. Meanwhile, recent elections like Wisconsin Judge Jill Karofsky's election to the state's Supreme Court on Monday point to a potential repeat of the 2018 midterms that put more Democrats in office. President Donald Trump has relied on the markets as proof of a job well done. But with the economy and American families struggling because of the coronavirus, how will he make his case for re-election in November? WGBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with WBZ political analyst Jon Keller to talk more about how the president is shifting his political narrative. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: I want to start at this briefing last night. I covered the White House for a number of years, as you know. I never saw anything like that last night. It even included the president playing a produced campaign-style video for the reporters who were in the room. Is the president scared?
Jon Keller: I would be if I were him. His poll numbers are eroding fast, the rally round the flag bounce that accrues to a commander in chief at a time of national crisis has vanished and the future looks bleak. When your whole premise for re-election was, 'Look at this unbelievable economy,' and now the economy has tanked, no wonder he's panicking.
Mathieu: Well, of course, you're looking ahead to November. Let's say you're Donald Trump. You're thinking, 'We reopen this thing in the spring, maybe the summer, the market comes roaring back and we've got an economic expansion with a victory lap just in time for November.' What could go wrong?
Keller: That's a possible scenario, but the fallback is apparent. And this began some weeks ago. The president's been dropping hints like Hansel and Gretel dropping little bits of food to try to find their path out of the woods. He indicated early on that if it were up to the doctors, they'd like to shut everything down for a year or more. He said that governors who were complaining about a lack of supplies are just doing it to get on cable TV. And now you see him moving ahead to brand himself as the guy who wants to reopen and get back to work while these governors — mostly Democratic governors — are the ones who are stuck in the mud, dragging their feet [and] don't really care about you. That's his fallback strategy for re-election. We'll see if it works.
Mathieu: I mentioned the Wisconsin Supreme Judicial Court. I can't imagine covering a race like that here in Boston, Jon, but this was seen as an upset because the president invested himself in this race. We remember the images of people standing in line with their faces covered. How much of an embarrassment is this outcome?
Keller: Well, it's a huge embarrassment and it's a major warning sign. It's been over a decade since a liberal candidate for the Wisconsin Supreme Court won. The Republicans thought that by forcing the election to go ahead in a situation where — for instance, in Milwaukee, a Democratic stronghold like most urban centers — out of 180 potential polling places, only 5 were open last Tuesday. They figured that they would cruise to re-election for the arch conservative judge. Instead, the guy got swamped. A turnout ran ahead of the 2016 presidential race in five different counties. And you see the formula emerging, the same formula that worked for Democrats in the midterm elections two years ago: win big in the cities and then roll up the winning margin in the suburbs. That's exactly what happened there. And Joe, consider the two amazing displays of anti-Trump fervor that we've witnessed in roughly the last month: Wisconsin and then the amazing resurrection of Joe Biden by the Democratic primary electorate. In both cases, voters made a calculation that they were going to maybe swallow hard, maybe they didn't necessarily like it, but they were in Wisconsin going to risk their lives by going out to vote and then rallying behind Biden. Basically [they] take their medicine with one unifying, mobilizing, energizing factor: the desire to stop Trump. And that's got to be a daunting phenomenon to see happening from the point of view of the White House.
Mathieu: What a world we're in, Jon Keller, were no one's mentioned the name Joe Biden yet so far, not at least on this program this morning on a day after Bernie Sanders conceded the race. Is Joe Biden's job right now to do nothing then?
Keller: Essentially, I think so. People of goodwill can disagree on this. But the path to victory for Joe Biden is that the vote in November is a straight up referendum on Donald Trump. That doesn't work well for Trump's re-election based on a chronic negativity in the polls and, of course, the fiasco of the pandemic crisis and his handling of it. So I think there's a good case to be made for saying Joe, keep hanging out in the basement, cut those videos to try to help raise money and energize the base. Otherwise, just lay low and have the voter going into the polling booth or filling out their absentee ballot in November thinking, "do I really want another four years of this?"