Trump Unpopular; Left Surges Despite Loss : Politics Podcast : The NPR Politics Podcast Amid a renewed spike in coronavirus cases, the number of voters disapproving of the job President Trump is doing is at an all-time high, a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll finds. Joe Biden is using the pandemic to attack the president. And despite a narrow loss in the Kentucky Senate primary, the progressive wing of the Democratic party is amassing power in the halls of Congress.

This episode: White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe, congressional correspondent Susan Davis, and senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro.

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Trump's Disapproval Climbs Alongside US Coronavirus Cases

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Trump's Disapproval Climbs Alongside US Coronavirus Cases

Trump's Disapproval Climbs Alongside US Coronavirus Cases

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BRIAN: This is Brian (ph) from beautiful Chula Vista, Calif. I've been at home so long. My hair has grown so long. I may have to put it in a ponytail or, even worse, the dreaded man bun. This podcast was recorded at...

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

It is 2:26 on Tuesday, June 30.

BRIAN: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I can guarantee you one thing. This guy will not be sporting a man bun anytime soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: In all the horrors of the pandemic, I hadn't even thought about the man bun until now.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Yeah. My hair's gone a little longer but nowhere near man bun territory.

DAVIS: You just wait.

RASCOE: (Laughter) Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

RASCOE: So with President Trump right now getting low marks for his response to the coronavirus, Joe Biden seems to be seizing this moment to lean in and really push against Trump on the virus.

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JOE BIDEN: Infections are on the rise. The threat of massive spikes that overwhelm the capacity of our health care system is on the horizon. Americans, anxious and out of work, are fearful for their lives and their livelihoods. Donald Trump is doing next to nothing about it.

RASCOE: So he's really calling him out. But what is Joe Biden right now actually asking to happen or saying that he would do differently?

MONTANARO: Well, obviously, there you can hear him talking about how he wants a more direct federal response. So far, we've seen the White House and the coronavirus task force led by Vice President Pence just sort of saying, hey; it's up to the states to decide how they're going to do things. They put out federal guidelines, but they're not all being adhered to, and they're certainly not enforcing those things.

One interesting thing is Biden wants mandatory mask wearing. We've heard from - strong encouragement from Anthony Fauci - Dr. Fauci, who runs the NIH's Allergy And Infectious Disease Agency, and from Dr. Deborah Birx, who's the coronavirus task force coordinator. That's a big thing, but it's become politicized. And politically, you know, this is what the Democrats are trying to do - is hammer Trump on competence.

DAVIS: There's certainly more unity among Democrats on the messaging here. I mean, Democrats are more aggressively calling for more robust federal intervention. Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week told Ari Shapiro and me in an interview that she supports Joe Biden's call for mandatory mask use.

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ARI SHAPIRO: Joe Biden said today that if he were elected president, he would make wearing a face mask in public mandatory. Do you agree with that?

NANCY PELOSI: Absolutely. In fact, the reason the CDC hasn't made it mandatory is because they don't want to embarrass the president or insult the president - whatever it is - offend the president. They said they recommend it, but they haven't required it. And we're like, why aren't you requiring it? The inference to be drawn from their response is that it's because of the president.

DAVIS: And I think this is notable because you see Republicans on Capitol Hill not agreeing with the president here en masse. Lamar Alexander is the top Republican on the Senate Health Committee. And today on Capitol Hill, he said publicly that he wanted the president to more aggressively promote the use of masks and even said he thought it would help if Trump himself would wear a mask in public from time to time because his followers would probably follow suit because they believe in what the president says and does.

RASCOE: Well, you have, you know, health officials like Anthony Fauci saying that even if they're not calling for necessarily mandatory mask wearing, they're calling for people - you know, almost universal mask wearing or just people being encouraged to do it because that's the way that people are arguing to open up the economy safely.

Domenico, President Trump has always had this kind of narrow band of approval ratings that he's stayed in for his entire presidency. But now he's at this low point. Is this a smart approach for Biden and Democrats to kind of drill away on the coronavirus response? Is that what's driving Trump's low approval ratings?

MONTANARO: Well, I think that that's one of the things. I think his handling of race relations is another part of it. You know, his coronavirus ratings have not been very good, a majority of people disapproving of his handling of coronavirus. And we had in our poll two-thirds of people saying that they thought that he'd made matters worse after George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police. So, you know, when President Trump weighs in on the culture war and weighs in on race, he is really awkward about it. He doesn't know how to really talk about this stuff. It's hard for him to erase his 30-year history on race.

And when people hear him and they think that he's making matters worse and they see what's happened with coronavirus and they're disapproving of the job he's done, that all explains why he's now at an all-time high of disapproval rating. We have 58% of people in the latest NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll disapproving of the job he's doing. And among those people, 49% of Americans strongly disapprove of the job he's doing. That's a number we've never seen for any president ever - that kind of intense opposition.

RASCOE: You said 58% disapprove overall?

MONTANARO: Of the job he's doing overall. That's right.

RASCOE: Wow.

DAVIS: Biden is certainly rising right now. He's got the lead in all of the national polling. But so much of this has come with him not having to do much of anything at all. You know, he has not been able to aggressively campaign. I know that the Trump campaign has been frustrated that they haven't been able to sort of draw him out on the campaign trail. But it does seem that the president's failing here and is slipping. It's like he's his own worst enemy.

You can't really blame Joe Biden for how poorly Donald Trump has been doing right now because Joe Biden's been nowhere. The public has been frustrated at the president for him and him alone and his handling of the pandemic, which - we should note as we sit here, it's getting worse again, right? And as long as the pandemic rages on, the economy is not going to be able to get back to where Donald Trump probably needs it to be to make the case more strongly for his own reelection.

MONTANARO: OK. Ayesha, so how is the Trump campaign adjusting to all of this? It's got to be really difficult for them at this point.

RASCOE: I think what stands out to me is that they don't really seem to be adjusting very much. I just got off a campaign call - campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh for the Trump campaign. And what they were kind of hammering away on when it comes to Biden - they were arguing that Biden, like Sue says, has not been out there. He's not been tested, and that - or he has not, you know, been tested on the campaign trail. They were arguing, basically, that Biden has a bad record when it came to H1N1 under the Obama administration, that they didn't do a good job with that and that the Trump administration has done a good job. They can point to the fact that testing is way up, and they did grow this new system for testing that was not there before. That's what they can point to.

But what also stood out to me was there was just no real acknowledgment that this is getting worse and that it's not clear what the president can do to address the pandemic at this moment. It's not over. It's still ongoing. There's still a lot of unanswered questions. And really, at this point in Trump's presidency, how he deals with this almost certainly will be a part of what makes or breaks his presidency. And that just didn't seem to be there.

MONTANARO: And we have to remember that reelections are referenda on the sitting president.

RASCOE: All right. Let's take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk about how progressives are doing in congressional primaries.

And we're back. Sue, you've been reporting on progressives in Democratic primaries. How are they doing?

DAVIS: They're doing a lot better than they did in the presidential primary. They've had a string of victories recently that I think has really sort of reinvigorated and energized the progressive wing of the party going into November.

RASCOE: And so what are, like, some of the key races that you looked at that you saw, like, a difference or you saw progressives kind of winning?

DAVIS: So the two that are getting the most attention are two of the races out of New York. They - one was in an open-seat race where a candidate named Mondaire Jones won a contested Democratic primary. And the reason why his win was pretty interesting is because he is a very unabashedly progressive candidate, supports things like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal. He's also young, he's Black, and he beat out sort of the, quote-unquote, "establishment-favored candidates." And this is a district that is whiter, wealthier and not a place that normally would send a Black progressive Democrat to Washington.

Another example of this is Jamaal Bowman. He's another Black candidate, another progressive. And he ran against Eliot Engel, who is a 30-plus-year Democratic incumbent congressman. And while the race hasn't been called yet, Bowman is expected to defeat Engel, which - as Domenico knows, one of the hardest things to do in politics is beat an incumbent.

And just today in Kentucky, while he did not win, Charles Booker is another Black candidate who came within two or three points of defeating Amy McGrath despite being outspent by untold numbers of money and having no real support outside of progressive activists, where McGrath was backed up by the entire Democratic Party. She raised something like $41 million, and he still was able to make it a close race. So while he didn't win, his kind of come-from-behind victory is what progressives are pointing to right now to say, hey, hey, hey. Like, we're still the rising force in the Democratic Party.

MONTANARO: And we're seeing that tension in Democratic primaries today even. Take Colorado, for example, where the former governor John Hickenlooper has really struggled in this primary. Colorado is a kind of place where, you know, Hickenlooper's kind of centrist politics really had won out. But Colorado has now become so much more Democratic that Democratic politics have moved even more progressive. And that's, you know, going to be really interesting because Republicans still think Hickenlooper is the tougher candidate against Sen. Cory Gardner. And it's a key Democratic potential pickup for - to - if they want to regain control of the Senate.

DAVIS: I've been talking to a lot of progressive activist groups about this - people like Justice Democrats, the Sunrise Movement, the Working Families Party. And all of them seem to agree that part of what's contributing to this sort of moment for progressive candidates is kind of the things outside of their control. One is the pandemic and also the racial justice protests following the death of George Floyd - that it has created a political climate where people are not only more interested in hearing from younger progressive candidates, who often tend to be nonwhite but also much more receptive to their message.

RASCOE: And when these progressives go to Washington, what will this mean for governing, you know, especially if you have, you know, a hypothetical Biden administration?

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, I think either way, they are certainly having a rising tide within the Democratic Party because people like Mondaire Jones and Jamaal Bowman are going to win in November. Like, winning the primary in these congressional districts was the hard part. They're virtually guaranteed to be members of Congress next year. Now the question is, if Joe Biden wins, what is the Congress he's going to be working with? Or even if Trump wins, he's going to be facing an even more progressive left House. That's going to be room for even more confrontation. But for - the question for Democrats is sort of who gets to lead the party here, right?

And I talked to Waleed Shahid, who's with Justice Democrats. And he made the point that if Biden were to win, he would be inheriting a Washington and a Congress and an environment that is radically different than Obama did in 2009; that it's a much more liberal party and that progressives will have a much bigger seat at the table just by the sheer fact of numbers; that while they may not be the dominant force in the Democratic Party, they are growing; and that if Biden wants to move any agenda through the House, that he's going to have to keep the progressive wing happy.

MONTANARO: He's going to have to keep the progressive wing happy, but it's not the progressives who got Democrats the House. Like you said, Sue, these are very strongly Democratic seats. You know, the people who won Democrats back at the House were those 40 or so moderates who wound up winning. And there's going to be that tension, I mean, even today, in primaries in Utah and Oklahoma - states and districts, by the way, that aren't generally hospitable to Democrats. And, you know, if the national conversation is that the party is moving so far left, it makes it that much tougher for people like that - like Congresswoman Kendra Horn or Ben McAdams in Utah - to be able to retain their seats.

RASCOE: All right, let's leave it there for today. And it's not too soon to let us know what you can't let go of this week. Let us know what you can't stop thinking about, politics or otherwise, by recording yourself and sending it to us at nprpolitics@npr.org. I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

RASCOE: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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