Coronavirus outbreak has lifted approval ratings of leaders everywhere; don’t expect that to last long
Governments will have to decide how to stagger a return to relative normality from the coronavirus and how to deal with the emotional issues of inequality, unemployment and debt that will surge to the fore of the political debate
Brussels: President Emmanuel Macron, never very popular, has touched his highest approval ratings in France since the onset of the coronavirus. As Italy has been devastated, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has hit a remarkable 71 percent, up 27 points. Even in Britain, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson waffled over a strong response, then became seriously ill himself, the government is the most popular in decades.
There is nothing like a good crisis to get diverse populations to rally around their leaders. When people are confused and afraid, they tend to trust their governments because to think that authorities are themselves confused and afraid, let alone incompetent, is too much to bear.
The question is whether that will last once the crisis eases, criticism mounts and normal politics resumes. Usually, it does not last long. Formal inquiries into the inevitable errors and mistakes soon follow, and voters, if allowed, often take their revenge, even on the most effective leaders.
And it is safe to say that many of those getting a boost for the moment have been less than effective, judging by the crushing toll of a virus impervious to partisan bluster and unforgiving of mistakes.
The uncertainties may best be demonstrated in the United States, where President Donald Trump, in a highly charged election year, got only a small bump up that did not last, given widespread ambivalence about how the White House has handled the pandemic.
“The initial instinct is to rally around the flag because it is seen as unpatriotic and unhelpful not to do so,” said Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “But societies can’t be mobilised in perpetuity. There’s inevitably a fatigue, and people will ask more difficult questions.”
George Robertson, the former NATO secretary-general and British defence secretary, put it bluntly: “People do rally around, but it evaporates fast.”
But for now, at least, most government leaders have seen a surge in popular support as they combat a natural calamity that has wreaked havoc, even if sometimes made worse by their own inaction or miscalculation.
One might expect competent leadership to benefit more. That has been largely the case in countries, particularly in northern Europe, that imposed tough measures early that allowed them to start reopening tentatively this week.
In Austria, where returning workers are required to wear masks, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s approval has risen to 77 percent, up 33 points. Similarly, Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands has 75 percent support, up 30 points.
As some children return to school and her government prepares Danes for a phased reopening that could take many months, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s support is up 40 points, to 79 percent.
The virus has even managed to revive the lame-duck government in Germany, which had been shedding support to both the Greens and the Far-Right. Support for Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose performance has been mostly applauded both inside and outside the country, has risen 11 points, to 79 percent.
But even in the countries hardest hit by the virus, leaders have also gotten a boost, in ways that at first glance would not seem to make perfect sense.
Italy has the highest death toll in the world behind the United States, and the government seemed to fumble through a piecemeal response that was always a step behind the virus. But Conte has seen his overall approval rating soar.
“In a warlike situation, you want to trust who governs you, and that goes for bad leaders and competent ones,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of Italy’s Institute of International Affairs. “But my hunch is that ultimately true colours will show.”
Already there are signs that some leaders are slipping from their peaks as public patience wears thin.
In the case of Macron, who acknowledged mistakes as he announced an extension of France’s lockdown this week, polls show him back down to 43 percent from 59 percent on 13 March, the highest rating of his administration.
“Macron has never been much above 25 percent,” said Christian Lequesne, a professor of European Politics at Sciences Po, citing the yellow vest movement, union unhappiness with economic reforms and a popular perception that Macron is more a man of the banks than of the people.
“The French are beginning to focus on the frustrations, like the lack of masks and were we prepared for such a pandemic,” Lequesne said. “I’m sure when the lockdown is finished those questions will immediately be put into public debate, and it will be in the interest of Opposition parties to blame the government.”
Macron’s presumed presidential opponent, Marine Le Pen of the Far-Right, populist National Rally, has been largely quiet in this time of national trauma, Lequesne said. “But when she speaks, she stresses the mask issue, the inability to manage the situation, and argues that we should have shut the borders completely.”
The crisis surrounding the coronavirus has produced much the same pattern as more violent conflict, when shows of support are typically immediate, if ephemeral.
In October 1979, President Jimmy Carter had a 31 percent approval rating. But after the siege of the US Embassy in Iran, his approval hit 58 percent in January 1980. Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan that November.
President George Bush’s approval rating rose from 58 percent in January 1991 to 87 percent after he drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. But he lost in 1992 to Bill Clinton.
President George W Bush had a 51 percent approval rating in a Gallup poll just before 11 September, 2001. By the end of the month, his approval rating hit 90 percent. He narrowly won reelection three years later.
Trump’s smaller-than-expected bump, given the coronavirus, has made him something of an outlier. While other world leaders are reaching highs in the 70 percent range, his approval ratings hover between 40 and 45 percent, reflecting his strong base but also widespread criticism of his performance.
One “positive” result of the virus, Tocci said, may be the discrediting of populism and a return to trust in expertise and more rational government.
“The whole nationalist populist surge was connected to an historical moment where you could afford to play with fire,” she noted. “But now the situation is really bad, so much more dangerous, and people don’t want the easy nonsense from media-savvy populists.”
She cited polls showing that Matteo Salvini, the noisy Italian populist, has been losing support on the right, while another Far-Right Opposition politician, Giorgia Meloni, “on the rational, coolheaded, nonpopulist right,” has done better.
Much of the public reaction may ultimately depend on how long the sense of crisis lasts, the onslaught of the virus being uncertain and open-ended. The unlocking of the lockdown will itself be fraught with political danger.
“Though we see these leaders making decisions, they’re not making them from a position of strength but from uncertainty and weakness,” said Nicholas Dungan, a Paris-based senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“They’re not leading so much as administering,” he said. “And once people are out and about and not confined anymore doing their duty, people are going to be quite angry, and this will lead to greater instability.”
Tony Travers, professor of government at the London School of Economics, noted that Winston Churchill was revered for having presided over the victory over Adolf Hitler but was summarily tossed out of office in 1945.
“Winning a war is absolutely no recipe for staying in office,” Travers said. “When the threat of illness goes away, then the consequences of being protected from the threat are very different.”
Governments will have to decide how to stagger a return to relative normality and how to deal with the emotional issues of inequality, unemployment and debt that will surge to the fore of the political debate.
“When we come out of this, the reckoning will start,” said Robin Niblett, director of the British foreign policy research institute Chatham House. “When people realise the expense, there will be questions of who gets taxed, how much the state owns and how much will people chafe against the controls,” he said.
Much remains unclear across the world, but “there is the potential for some serious political wind shears,” Niblett said. “Leaders are going to have a very rocky time toward autumn as the bills get delivered.”
Steven Erlanger c.2020 The New York Times Company
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