BETH: This is Beth (ph) from Murray, Utah, calling from Murray, Utah. But I was supposed to be calling from my first-ever tour of the U.S. Capitol Building, compliments of my congressman, Congressman Ben McAdams. This podcast was recorded at...
SCOTT DETROW, HOST:
It's 1:37 Eastern on Friday. It is Friday, March 27.
BETH: Much like my travel plans, things may have changed by the time you hear this. Stay healthy and safe in the U.S. Capitol, and maybe one day I'll be able to see it in person.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
DETROW: You'll come, you'll visit, it'll be great. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover politics. And today we've got two special guests from the Business Desk - Scott Horsley and Danielle Kurtzleben. And, Danielle...
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Yes.
DETROW: ...I think listeners might be like, wait a second. What? But coronavirus has temporarily changed both of our jobs for a little bit. I am now helping out on White House coverage, and you have shifted to the Business Desk to cover this massive economic fallout.
KURTZLEBEN: That's right. A few years ago, during - after the recession, I was an economics reporter. I covered that horrible aftermath. So this is kind of deja vu right now, and not in a great way.
DETROW: Not a story you wanted to cover a second time.
DETROW: So let's start out on that note with two big scary stats. The first - at the time of this taping, there are now more than a half-million reported coronavirus cases around the world, more than 86,000 here in the U.S. and that means the U.S. now has more cases than any other country, including Italy and China. And if that wasn't scary enough, let's talk about another monstrous number, and that's what we're going to focus on here. Nearly 3.3 million unemployment claims were filed last week. So how unprecedented is that number, 3.3 million in a week?
KURTZLEBEN: It's staggering, in a word. It's hard for me to put words around it. Let me give our listeners some perspective here. At the height of the recession and the aftermath of it, the highest number of weekly initial unemployment claims that we had was just north of 650,000. So that was the worst. Now we are at 3.3 million, and that may not capture everybody for a variety of reasons. You know, some states were just overwhelmed with claims, for example, and some people couldn't get through. So that is wildly huge. It is hard to overstate it.
DETROW: So that number's going to go up.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Yeah, that number is going to go up. We're not out of the woods on this, with last week's numbers, by any means. A lot of people who were out of work already have had trouble getting through to the overloaded phone lines and computer websites. So they're still in line to file. And then new people are being laid off by the day as more and more businesses shut down. What's unusual about this is in a normal recession or even a really bad recession like we had during the Great Recession, it plays out over months, maybe a year. We're seeing all the job loss compressed into just a handful of weeks here. I mean, we've just slammed on the brakes of this economy in a way that we've never seen before.
DETROW: So just to back up on something you just said, are we at this point in a recession? Is that something that we all accept or is it a complicated answer to that?
KURTZLEBEN: I mean, most likely, yes, we are. I mean, the thing is, a recession, the typical definition, is two straight quarters of negative growth. Now, we haven't seen an official readout of GDP growth that says we're negative yet, but it's hard to imagine that we're not in that territory right now just based on the numbers. I know Scott has been paying attention to this pretty closely as well.
HORSLEY: Yeah. I'm going to go out on a limb, and while the official dating committee hasn't put their stamp on it yet, I'm going to go out on a limb and say we're in a recession. We were kind of coasting along in the first part of the year with not great growth but healthy growth. But just the last couple of weeks of March - that's the end of the first quarter - have been so bleak that we're now looking at negative growth in the first quarter. That is the January, February, March time period. And we're sure to be in really negative growth in the April, May, June time period, when we're really going to see the results of this slowdown. And there's your two quarters right there.
KURTZLEBEN: Just to give people some perspective, if you don't pay attention to these sort of numbers, GDP growth - normally, you know, normal growth might - in the U.S. - might be, you know, 1% to 2% quarter to quarter, somewhere in there, maybe three if it's really strong. So some economics firms, some forecasters have said, look, we could have double-digit negative growth in this next quarter. So this could be really bad.
DETROW: So two big questions moving forward. First is the fact that President Trump, a lot of his White House advisers are giving this optimistic message saying, once we get through this, it's going to be a quick recovery. We can have at the end of the year economic growth again. What are the experts you're talking to think about that?
HORSLEY: It's - it is really hard to say. I mean, Jerome Powell, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, was on the "Today" show this week. And he said, look, it's going to depend on the course of the virus. And this is a new virus. Nobody's really sure how it's going to play out. But I will say there are plenty of forecasters who think we will be on the far side of this by the second half or at least the end of the year. And just as we've seen a really sharp slowdown in the economy, it's conceivable that we could see a pretty quick rebound in the economy if we manage to keep things more or less afloat in the meantime.
That's what a lot of the policymakers are trying to do is just keep the patient alive until we can get to the other side of the pandemic and then get to an economic rebound. But because this is a novel virus, and also because there's a lot of moving parts with how we impose these social distancing measures - and nobody's quite sure how effective that's going to be - it's just really hard to predict how long it's going to take for us to be able to put the economy back on a more normal footing.
DETROW: And I guess the biggest factor is how long it takes to really calm down the spread of this, and does the spread go up again if people start feeling comfortable and moving around?
HORSLEY: I haven't heard any economists being quite as rosy in their forecast as perhaps President Trump, you know, the idea that maybe we could be back to normal by Easter Sunday. But I certainly have seen reputable forecasters who think by the end of the summer, by the fall, you could be in a better place.
DETROW: So, Danielle, we have been talking a lot about this economic rescue bill. It actually just passed the House of Representatives just before we started taping. How much could that affect the economic picture here and give people some stability or some ability to pay rent going forward?
KURTZLEBEN: So just starting off, it could give everybody at least a bit of a shot in the arm because you have these relief checks that are going out to everybody - $1,200 for most adults, $2,400 for joint filers. To put that in perspective, $1,200 is a bit more than the median weekly earnings that the U.S. full-time worker might get. The median weekly earnings are around $936. So, you know, it's a fair bit of money. It's more than median rent in the United States by a little bit. So it covers - it'll cover a fair bit.
Now, then again, this is going to last longer than a week or a month, it sounds like from public health experts. And so for some families - for the people hardest hit, honestly, the unemployment insurance part of this might end up being a much bigger deal even though a lot of attention is on those checks. The unemployment expansion here is pretty big. I mean, it's a pretty big part of this because you have more people who can apply for unemployment now who are eligible - gig workers, freelancers, contractors, all sorts of people. And there is this - for four months, at least - an additional $600 onto a weekly jobless check. Now that $600, that's a big deal. The average weekly unemployment check right now is somewhere in the region of $370-380. So this is a really big deal.
HORSLEY: Almost tripling the typical unemployment check.
HORSLEY: And can you circle back to how this affects gig workers, like Uber drivers?
KURTZLEBEN: So that's a very good question, now on the macro level, it means those people can go apply for jobless benefits, whereas under normal unemployment rules, they couldn't. Now the question is exactly how this will work. I'm sure we have listeners wondering that, and at least one expert I spoke to yesterday, one unemployment law expert, she said, you know, that's not entirely clear yet. We - some of this is going to be figured out when the rubber meets the road because if you're an Uber driver and you were getting - you were giving 40 rides last week, you're giving two rides this week and it's coronavirus-related, then how do you - what does your documentation look like when you go to the state office and say, hey, I'm not giving as many rides? I mean, a lot of this is going have to be worked out in guidance, in rules, in administration. This is - there's going to be a lot for state agencies and the federal government to do here.
HORSLEY: And it's going to be a squeaky process. I mean, Danielle is right. The payments - the direct payments that are going out as a result of this bill, that's about $250 billion. The additional unemployment benefits is another $250 billion. So they're comparable chunks of money in those two pieces of this legislation. The...
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)
KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter) Hey, buddy.
HORSLEY: That's the - the mail is coming in the door.
DETROW: The mail has been really exciting in our house every day as well.
HORSLEY: Thank you. So those are two big chunks of money in this piece of legislation. The direct payments, for most people, those are going to be directly deposited into their bank accounts with information that the IRS already has in its possession. The unemployment benefits, on the other hand, they have to go out through state unemployment offices. And those offices for years now have been dealing with a really small workload. I mean, we've gone from having really low - record-low unemployment to having a big surge in unemployment in a week's time. And it's going to take a while for those state unemployment offices to get up to speed.
DETROW: One last question to round all this out - you have seen this interesting ripple effect of everybody changing the way that they buy things, they buy groceries, they buy everything else they need. You have places like - you know, the grocery store delivery company Instacart is going to hire up to 300,000 new workers. You've seen Amazon, obviously, and Walmart see a surge in demand for employment. How much does that mitigate this or maybe shift overall the way that we buy things going forward?
HORSLEY: So Vice President Pence said this week that all told (ph) companies that have announced big hiring sprees - and there's also a pizza company that's on that list; they're doing pretty well - add up to about a half a million new jobs that have been announced by these companies. So that's a half a million to offset the 3.3 million in newly unemployed people.
But you're right, Scott. Some of these changes might be temporary, but some of this may just continue a - sort of restructuring of the way a lot of retail is already done. I mean, we were already seeing a decline in brick-and-mortar retail shops and a shift to more and more online. This could accelerate that. I do think we should all give a little elbow bump or socially-distant-appropriate round of applause to the delivery drivers and the grocery workers who are still doing what they can to keep us supplied with the necessities of life.
DETROW: All right, Scott and Danielle, thank you so much. I miss both of you.
KURTZLEBEN: I miss you guys, too. This has been sad, but good to talk to you.
HORSLEY: Good to be with you.
DETROW: Very dire and existential, but a nice conversation.
KURTZLEBEN: Fair. Yeah. All right, stay healthy, guys.
DETROW: All right, thanks. We're going to take a quick break. And when we come back, we're going to talk about how all of this has affected President Trump's approval rating and, of course, Can't Let It Go.
And we're back. And I've got NPR's Ayesha Rascoe and Domenico Montanaro here in the virtual studio with me, which, of course, means we are in three different places. Hey, guys.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Hey.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.
DETROW: So on Monday, President Trump was asked if he has any regrets about how he has handled the pandemic so far.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I guess there's always something everybody regrets. There are things in your life you regret. We all regret things. But I really like to look forward. I'm a person that looks - a forward-thinker, I guess they would say. No, I think that we've handled it really well. It seems to be - the American public thinks that we've handled it well if you look at polling data.
DETROW: Domenico, you have been looking at all of the polling data that has come out over the last few weeks. Does the American public think that President Trump is doing a good job in this crisis?
MONTANARO: Well, look; it's pretty mixed. I mean, a couple of weeks ago when we did our NPR/PBS NewsHour polling, you know, the president was upside-down in approval of handling of this crisis. You know, only 44% said that they approved of his handling. Forty-nine percent said they disapproved.
But every poll since in the last couple of weeks has shown an improvement. You know, there's a range. Gallup had a poll out that got a lot of attention that showed 60% of people approving of the job Trump has done. That looks like it's an outlier because almost everything else is much closer to around 50%. So Fox had a poll yesterday that had him at 51%. Reuters/Ipsos - YouGov had a poll the other day that showed him at 49% percent approval. But undoubtedly, look; the numbers have improved. And his approval rating overall is the highest it's been during his presidency now at 47%.
RASCOE: And so 47%, that doesn't sound really high to me, Domenico. Is that just because the president's been in this, like, narrow range?
MONTANARO: Yeah. Look; it's not high, right? I mean, it's still below 50%, obviously. And it's only really, on the average of the polls, a three-point bounce, which is not much of a bounce. But look; the trend overall has definitely shown a little bit of a rally around the flag effect, although it's very small compared to past presidents who have, you know, gotten into crises or wars where we've seen an uptick. But frankly, I think this has more to do with partisanship, how strongly it's taken hold and how much it took hold, frankly, during the Obama administration after the Affordable Care Act passed. And we didn't see much fluctuation in Obama's numbers once that happened.
DETROW: So, Domenico, of course, one of the factors that's going on here - and it affects a lot more than his poll numbers - is the fact that President Trump has shifted his tone a lot, especially in the last week. This isn't a big deal. This is a major national emergency. Now he's back to some sort of, like, anxiousness and impatience with the measures that his administration is suggesting. Do we have any sense when we see his approval rating going up and see approval for the job he's doing at what particular point in his approach to this that was coming from?
MONTANARO: Yeah, look; polling is usually a lagging indicator, so we don't have any indication at this point based on this week and what the president's tonal shift has meant or will do next week. You know, as polls come out in the following days as, you know, the president's new tone sinks in, you could see a change in those numbers because frankly, it does track this improved number - mild improvement - it tracks with him taking it more seriously. So you wonder if now this sort of shift and pivot to impatience that he's had, if that will have any kind of impact at all, or if people are tuning in totally, you know, whatsoever. You know, I think sometimes we overestimate how much people are paying attention. Of course, people are staying home now more, so they could be paying attention more.
DETROW: One particular thing the president was doing a lot and then seems to have scaled back is calling coronavirus the Chinese virus.
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TRUMP: And we continue our relentless effort to defeat the Chinese virus.
DETROW: Ayesha, can you talk us through what exactly he was saying, what he was trying to do there and what some of the consequences have been?
RASCOE: Yes. So he was calling it the Chinese virus. He was pressed on this by reporters a number of times - why are you using this language? And his defense was, oh, this came from China.
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TRUMP: I talk about the Chinese virus, and I mean it. That's where it came from. You know, if you look at Ebola, if you look at all - Lyme - right? - Lyme, Conn. - you look at all these different horrible diseases, they seem to come with a name with a location. And this was the Chinese virus.
RASCOE: And he would point to the fact that some in China had been accusing the U.S. of somehow spreading the virus or starting the virus, had been making these false accusations. And so this was kind of his way of getting back at China for doing that. He would call it the Chinese virus.
Of course, there were complaints. People were saying that Asian Americans are being targeted because of this sort of language. Now President Trump, when he now - you know, over the past couple of days, he's stopped using that language, and he started tweeting and saying, I don't want Asian Americans to be attacked. I've heard there's nasty language against them, and I don't want that. He never, of course, in doing that, acknowledged that he might have played a role or his language might have played a role in that. But he has stopped using - for now, as of this podcast - the Chinese virus, using that on a regular basis.
DETROW: And we've seen that a few times over the last couple weeks. Domenico, one last thing that I'm wondering in the part of my brain that is with my once and future beat of covering the Democratic side of the presidential race, and that is the fact that in response to President Trump's numbers going up a little bit, you have seen a couple major Democratic super PACs airing attack ads, really criticizing President Trump for how he initially downplayed coronavirus, a couple other things. Do we have any sense how much a political ad like that can cut through when the crisis is so massive and so all-consuming for so many people?
MONTANARO: Well, people are home right now, so that's one thing. I mean, people will be able to see those ads. It's sort of delicate because something that reeks of politics is going to - has the potential to turn people off. But the longer that this goes on, you know, you got to have a campaign that's run at some point because the election is, you know, really only months away at this point.
RASCOE: And overall, it's just hard for any of that stuff to break through, right? Like, that's what Democrats are dealing with, or trying to respond to, is that everything's coronavirus, and not much is campaign.
DETROW: Yeah. And a quick reminder, we actually talked all about this in yesterday's podcast. We took a break from the day-to-day coronavirus news to look at the weirdness of the presidential campaign right now, so you can check that out in your feeds.
All right, we're going to take one more quick break. And when we come back, it's time for Can't Let It Go.
RASCOE: Go in the other room, OK? Just go downstairs, please.
RASCOE: I got her. She's OK. (Laughter) We can get started.
DETROW: All right. And we are back, and it's time to end the show like we do every week, with Can't Let It Go, the part of the show where we talk about the things we can't stop thinking about - politics or otherwise. I know generally, all of us, just like everyone else in the world, has one big Can't Let It Go at the moment. But beyond that - pushing that aside, Ayesha, what can you not let go of?
RASCOE: What I can not let go of is the BBC dad. Do you remember him?
DETROW: Oh, yeah.
RASCOE: Yeah. He was the dad who was talking about North Korea on BBC, like, back in 2017. And he was in his home office, and then his his daughter comes stroll - strutting in. And then the baby came in in the walker. And the mom came in and snatched him up with the momma snatch. And it was great. And (laughter) it was...
DETROW: And now we've all become that family.
RASCOE: We've all become that family. They brought them back on. The kids are now older. The baby who was in the walker is now up and is, you know, is a little boy now, not a baby. And they tried to do their interview again with the whole family. And, of course, the kids were not having it. The father was having to, like, put his hand over the little girl's mouth. The son walked out at a point and came back with, like, a video game and just plopped down on the bed because he was over it. And I feel him because I just had my 2-year-old in my lap and - trying to do this podcast. And she totally interrupted everything. So I feel them. I feel their pain (laughter).
MONTANARO: Yeah. I think we all do right now. I mean, I've got mine behind the door that I'm just hoping will stop jumping and running around. But, you know, it is what it is at this point.
DETROW: I saw this updated video. It made me really happy. I think we can all feel a little better because Justin Trudeau is running all of Canada - his wife is actually sick - and he is alone in the house with his three kids and still somehow managing to run Canada. So could be worse for all of us right now. I think Justin Trudeau might have the record at the moment.
RASCOE: And he's doing it without any help. Like, when I first saw it, I was like, oh, he must have nannies. No, because to keep everyone safe, it's just him and the kids. And he has to go - wait; Daddy has an important call, you know, with China or whatever (laughter). Kids, be quiet. So yeah. We're all that family now.
DETROW: Domenico, what about you?
MONTANARO: Well, what I can't let go of is in New York, which is really being hit hard by coronavirus, there are all these foster dogs that have been taken in by people. And adoptions are on the rise, which is really some silver lining in a pretty, you know, dark crisis. At least people have a companion, and those companions have found good homes.
RASCOE: That's surprising, but I guess people are now re-evaluating their lives and what's really important.
MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, you know, the old axiom in Washington is if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog. I guess that's the case in New York with coronavirus.
DETROW: That's really nice. But I feel like a lot of dogs are going to have to have a massive reality check at some point - hopefully sooner rather than later - when everybody goes back to work and they're like, wait, what? You leave the house? Wait a second.
MONTANARO: Aw, I know. But at least they're not in the shelter.
DETROW: Yes. It's nice. But some couch pillows are definitely going to be ripped up at some point in the next few months when everybody goes back to work.
MONTANARO: Well, you know, animals are very much therapy for a lot of people. You know, just being able to sit with them and pet them on the couch, you know, while you're sort of stuck inside is - I think is going to help a lot of people.
So, Scott, what can't you let go of?
DETROW: Yeah, so I actually just saw this right before we started taping, and I thought it was really funny. Obviously, coronavirus is now hitting Great Britain pretty seriously. We found out today that the prime minister, Boris Johnson, has coronavirus, as does Prince Charles and a lot of other people.
MONTANARO: I know.
DETROW: Yeah. So he better not be anywhere near the queen. But I just saw kind of a funny side effect in that London, just like so many other cities, is basically shut down. So because there is no traffic anywhere, London has used this opportunity to go and give the famous crosswalk in front of Abbey Road Studios a fresh coat of paint because usually there's so many people trying to cross it and get their pictures taken like the Beatles' album cover taken in that crosswalk it's impossible. But nobody was on the street. They went out. They rolled the crosswalk. It's got a fresh coat of paint. It is good to go wherever tourists return.
RASCOE: So it's good for the selfies.
DETROW: Yes, yes, when selfie season returns. All right, that is a wrap for today and this week. Hope you have a good weekend. And just like everything else in your life, it takes a little extra effort to produce this podcast right now, so a big thank you to our whole crew.
Our executive producer is Shirley Henry. Our editors are Muthoni Muturi and Eric McDaniel. Our producer is Barton Girdwood. Our production assistant is Chloee Weiner. Thank you to Lexie Schapitl, Dana Farrington, Brandon Carter, Meredith Roten (ph) and Maya Gandhi. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover politics.
RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.
MONTANARO: I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.
DETROW: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
MONTANARO: All I know is I'm running out of Lysol wipes.
RASCOE: My hands are, like, raw from washing them.
DETROW: Oh, my God. My hands - my hands are always dry to begin with, so this has been disastrous.
MONTANARO: Got to moisturize, Scott. Got to moisturize.
RASCOE: Got to moisturize.
DETROW: I know. It's a problem.
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