By Jon Keller


BOSTON (CBS) – We learned long ago that President Trump is obsessed with polls. And while he only touts the favorable ones, dismissing the rest as “fake news” even when they’re conducted by his favorite network, Fox, he would do well to pay close attention to the new CBS News/YouGov survey of 2,190 adults conducted March 21-23.

The good news for the White House is that despite high anxiety over the way the pandemic is being handled in the U.S. (25% think it’s going “very badly,” with another 32% saying “somewhat badly”), the president’s performance is drawing majority approval – for now. A total of 53% say his handling of the outbreak has been “very” (28%) or “somewhat” good (25%).

Congress draws nearly identical ratings, with 85% approval of the idea of direct payments to citizens slammed by the economic collapse. And the most-visible figures in the response to COVID-19 are drawing high marks. Eighty-five percent say the performance of medical and health officials has been “about right,” while 68% say the same of state and local officials. More than eight in ten say they’re “optimistic” about the ability of scientists to find a coronavirus cure or vaccine.

Now, the bad news.

The president’s repeated insistence that he and his administration have been on top of this situation since day one – a claim contradicted by readily-available video of him repeatedly downplaying the whole thing – isn’t selling. Two-thirds of poll respondents say the White House was “unprepared to deal with this outbreak as it was starting.” (The only demographic group that’s buying that outlandish spin: Republicans, at least 67% of them.)

Going forward, Mr. Trump has a major credibility problem on his hands. Only 44% trust him to provide “accurate information about the virus and what to do during the outbreak,” compared with “your state’s governor” (66%), the CDC (82%) and medical and health professionals (88%). Perhaps the fact that the likes of Dr. Anthony Fauci enjoy twice as much trust as him will dissuade Trump from pursuing the dismissive tone he took toward “the doctors” at Monday’s briefing.

One way of interpreting these numbers is that as long as the president defers to the experts and delivers on the urgent needs of the states and local communities, he may escape harsh public backlash over the initial bungling.

But they also suggest he may have to stand down from his hints about accelerating the schedule for a “back to work” return to semi-normalcy in order to staunch the economic hemorrhaging. Asked when they think “most activities…can return to normal,” only 23% said “in the next few weeks”; 47% said “the next few months,” and another 17% say that might have to wait up to a year.

And there’s a giant caveat to all of this. The expert consensus seems to be that we are just now entering the worst of this. These poll numbers could look dramatically different in ten days or two weeks if, God forbid, the worst-case scenarios come true.

And if that happens, there will be no dismissing it as fake news.

Jon Keller

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