WASHINGTON – Vice President Mike Pence has long played the straight man to Donald Trump, translating the president's bombast into more measured, calming language.
His job has become even more difficult. As coronavirus cases spike across large parts of the country despite months of lockdown, Pence has spent the past week trying to convince the American public that things are going very well, even though they're not.
“Make no mistake about it, what you see today is that America is going back to work and the American people are finding a way every day to put this coronavirus farther in the past," he told CNBC the same day the country reported more than 55,000 new virus cases, a daily record.
For public health experts, the optimism has been unmoored from reality.
“It’s almost laughable because it doesn’t pass any test of credibility when we’re seeing spikes in cases, spikes in hospitalizations," said Larry Gostin, who specializes in public health at Georgetown University Law School. “The American people aren’t stupid. They can see spin when there is spin."
The most important thing Pence can do, Gostin said, "is to be honest with the American public. ... They need to be told the truth and then they need to be told what America is going to do to turn this around.”
It's not the first time Pence has been forced to put his own credibility on the line as he serves as Trump's most loyal soldier. It may be the most consequential.
While Trump has tried to distance himself from what he calls “the plague" as he pursues reelection, Pence has emerged as the public face of this phase of the outbreak, traveling frequently to virus hot spots, coordinating with governors and leading the administration's coronavirus task force.
The role, according to those close to him, is a natural fit for Pence, a former Indiana governor who sees it as his job to defend the president and reopen the country as safely as possible. But allies are keenly aware that Pence's political future will hinge on whether Trump wins a second term.
If Trump loses, and Pence makes his own run at the presidency in 2024, he probably would face many candidates from a new generation of politicians. That could include Nikki Haley, former ambassador to the United Nations and South Carolina governor, and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.
Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said Pence faces a “real dilemma” because Trump's reelection depends so much on an economic rebound predicated on states reopening during the pandemic.
From a public health perspective, “We’re actually losing again. It's getting worse. We’re going to have to cut back in the economy," he said.
After spending time on the road highlighting reopening efforts, Pence traveled this past week to Arizona and Florida, states where cases are surging. He tried to make the case that the country is in a far improved position now than it was early on in the outbreak when testing capacity was dismal and doctors and nurses were desperate for basic protective equipment.
“The American people deserve to know that we’re in a much better place today, thanks to the whole-of-government approach, the whole-of-America approach that President Trump initiated at the very outset of the coronavirus pandemic," Pence said Tuesday during a task force briefing held not at the White House but at the U.S. Public Health Service headquarters in Rockville, Maryland.
White House officials and allies stress there are positive signs beyond the flow of supplies, with deaths remaining down and several therapeutics on the market. The point of the lockdowns, they stress, was to flatten the infection curve to avoid overwhelming hospitals, not eliminate cases.
To further push that message, Pence is expected to resume campaign travel soon. Campaign officials met by phone on Thursday to map out media markets where they feel he could be beneficial.
While Trump favors large-scale rallies, Pence will continue to focus on more intimate settings, inducing diner visits, bus tours and smaller speaking engagements, especially in front of groups such as white evangelicals and suburban families who may be more receptive to a less hyper-political message.
Pence will focus on swing states by stressing local issues and trying to show voters how the administration has affected their lives for the good. He’s expected to spend plenty of time in states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, as well as Arizona and North Carolina, talking about bringing back manufacturing jobs. It's a promise Trump made in 2016 that has been largely unmet.
At the same time, however, Trump's campaign recently disbanded a team of staffers dedicated to Pence, including his communications director, spokesperson and the director of vice presidential operations. Strategy and planning are now being handled by Marty Obst, a longtime Pence adviser who served as his campaign manager in 2016, and Marc Short, his chief of staff.
While some described the move as a natural transition given the vice president already has a full staff at the White House, others said it suggested a diminished role on a campaign that sees Pence more as a surrogate than a principal.
Trump campaign spokeswoman Ali Pardo dismissed that suggestion, saying Pence “has played an integral role in promoting and implementing President Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda across the country.”
Pence has made clear he feels this is Trump's campaign and he has every right to run it how he wants.
Barry Bennett, a longtime Republican strategist who worked for Trump in 2016, praised Pence's performance.
“He has a very tough job. But so far I think he’s managed to do it with compassion and integrity," he said. “He’s probably the only that’s come out of the pandemic experience with positive results."