Worried Americans, concerned about virus, telling leaders not so fast


Sometimes the people are way ahead of the politicians.

History is filled with examples of presidents and lawmakers having to play catchup with public opinion. No political pro wants to get too far out ahead of public sentiment, however worthy the cause, out of concern for a potential backlash.

By the time Barack Obama reversed himself in 2012 and backed gay marriage, the public had turned much more supportive after seeing what happened in states that had legalized such unions. By the time LBJ passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the movement led by Martin Luther King had dramatized the scourage of discrmination.

The same goes for President Trump withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, long after the public had tired of what he calls endless wars.

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Now, with the number of coronavirus cases surging to levels not seen since the spring, millions of Americans may again be ahead of their leaders.

Trump is pressuring the governors to reopen the schools in September, though he softened that a bit this week, and threatens to cut federal aid to districts that don’t comply.

But a new Associated Press poll shows the public isn’t persuaded.

Only 8 percent of those questioned say that schools should reopen for normal in-person instruction, as the president wants. And just 14 percent say they can reopen with minor adjustments.

Some 46 percent in the survey say schools can reopen with major adjustments. And another 31 percent say there should be no in-person instruction at all. The numbers are similar just among parents of school-age kids, who presumably would love to see their children back in the classroom if it were safe.

There is, naturally, a partisan split: 26 percent of Republicans, while only 5 percent of Democrats, support reopening with minor adjustments. But 43 percent of Republicans, and 50 percent of Democrats, back reopening with major adjustments.

A number of school districts, including several suburban Washington districts, have decided on virtual learning at least through early next year. Some cities are moving toward a hybrid model that mixes classroom and video teaching.

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In the political debate, there are accusations that one side doesn’t care about children’s safety and that the other side wants a massive shutdown through the election for political reasons. But parents basically have one question: Will my kid be safe?

For all the talk in Washington about reopening businesses, public sentiment is just as crucial. If people don’t feel safe walking through department stores, sitting in restaurants or getting on airplanes, the new phases and guidelines will be meaningless. Big-name retail chains are continuing to declare bankruptcy. The stock market has bounced back, but Main Street mostly remains behind.

It is, of course, the job of the president, governors, members of Congress and other leaders to persuade people that they’re taking prudent steps and the economy and schools can, over time, safely return to normal. But in the end, Americans will vote with their feet.

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