The president has also continued to credit his own administration’s response. But Mr. Beschloss added that “part of being a wartime president is being willing to give people bad news,” a job Mr. Trump has mostly left to others.
At the same time, he has been timid of using wartime powers to fight what he has called an “invisible enemy.” Last week, for instance, he resisted invoking the Defense Production Act, a federal law that grants presidents extraordinary powers to force American industries to ensure the availability of critical equipment.
Mr. Trump’s allies are aware that his re-election now hangs almost entirely on how he handles the crisis. And the question is whether he will be seen as President George W. Bush was in the immediate aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when he was widely viewed as bringing the nation together, or if he will be compared to Mr. Bush amid the fallout from Hurricane Katrina, when he tried to minimize a crisis that eventually became too big for him to ignore, and during which Mr. Bush praised cabinet officials even as the federal government bungled the response.
Aides said that how Mr. Trump ends up being perceived would also depend on Mr. Trump’s own disposition during the crisis. It is not clear to them whether he will be able to maintain his focus on the crisis for months, especially as the economic situation worsens. Over the weekend, some Trump advisers weren’t ready to accept the likelihood of jobless claims climbing into the millions by next month.
The White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, defended Mr. Trump’s response as apolitical. “While it seems many in the media continue to use every opportunity to destroy this president, the fact remains that he has risen to fight this crisis by taking aggressive historic action to protect the health, wealth and well-being of the American people,” Ms. Grisham said in an email.
Some Democrats, meanwhile, said the mistakes made at the beginning of the response had already colored how Mr. Trump would be remembered both in the history books and at the ballot box in November. “At the end of the day, this will be Katrina with the waters at a much higher level, and lasting a longer time,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster.
But there is an emerging split in Democratic circles about whether to attack Mr. Trump’s response to the virus in real time, or whether the gravity of the moment calls for a pause in negative political advertising and attacks.