THIS cannot have been what Donald Trump had in mind when he stood on the steps of the Capitol Building that January day in 2017 and promised to make America great again.

In his inaugural address, the new President Trump set out a vision of an America that was stronger, richer, prouder. Topping a global league table for the number of coronavirus victims was not among the list of achievements dangled before the American people.

Yet the fact America has 1.5 million cases (ahead of Russia, Brazil, the UK and Spain) should be seen as “a badge of honour”, the President said this week. How? Because it shows America is testing more people than anyone else.

“When we have a lot of cases. I don’t look at that as a bad thing, I look at that as, in a certain respect, as being a good thing because it means our testing is much better,” he said. “So I view it as a badge of honour. Really, it’s a badge of honour. It’s a great tribute to the testing and all of the work that a lot of professionals have done.”

One and a half million cases and close to 92,000 people dead and a US President talks of a badge of honour. If this is a success it is on a par with that of Jimmy Cagney in White Heat, standing among the gas storage tanks as the bullets fly. “Made it ma, top of the world!” That story did not end well. Which brings us to how the tale of Mr Trump might play out in this, a presidential election year.

You have to hand it to Mr Trump. No satirist could ever come up with a more outrageous script for this president than the one he improvises for himself day after day. After suggesting injections of disinfectant as a possible treatment for Covid-19, he has revealed that he is taking hydroxychloroquine, a treatment for malaria, to ward off the disease. It is his own personal cross and garlic.

He is taking the drug despite no evidence it works against the virus, and warnings that it may be unsafe for certain people. In the self-medication stakes, I would have had him down for hamburgers ahead of anti-malaria drugs any day, but there we are.

So much has changed in his presidency in such a short time. At this stage in the cycle, with a booming economy behind him, he could have been powering towards election day in November. Rally after rally trumpeting his success.

While only the most starry-eyed of admirers thought he would stroll back into the White House without a hitch, and his poll ratings remained relatively dire at this stage in a presidency, he always had the economy.

Now there are 36 million Americans without jobs. Many are still at the fear and bewilderment stage; the anger will come soon enough. Jerome Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve, has warned of a 20-30% contraction of the economy and no recovery till the end of next year. Every country in the world is suffering financially from this virus, but not every leader is facing an election.

Just when Mr Trump might reckon he has quite enough problems to deal with, along comes someone who burrows right under that notoriously thin presidential skin: Barack Obama. Though he did not refer to Mr Trump directly in two addresses to graduates, the 44th president shone a light on many of the failings of the 45th. Eloquent, measured, addressing fears and generating hope, he showed America, or at least the part of that deeply divided country that still admires him, what it was missing.

If Mr Trump suffers in comparison with his predecessor, what of the candidate Mr Obama endorsed? Like his opponent, Joe Biden is in a situation not of his choosing. Instead of steadily ramping up his long campaign, the former Vice-President is stuck at home in Delaware, making speeches via live-streamed videos. I wouldn’t say the videos are of patchy quality, but between the honking geese in the background in the most recent one (“They’re cheering,” he said), and the iPhone that went off (“I don’t know whose phone that is”) he could make a fortune from one of those blooper video programmes.

In recent months he has faced an allegation of sexual assault from a former assistant. He denies the claim. In addition, as each state moves towards easing the lockdown, Mr Biden’s interventions, such as they are, have been overshadowed by the practical successes of Democratic governors, some of whom are polling ahead of the President. That could ultimately help Mr Biden, particularly in the key target states of Michigan and Pennsylvania.

If Mr Biden is struggling to break through the din caused by the virus crisis it is not harming him in the polls. In one of the most recent he was six points ahead of his opponent, on 53% to 47% (Harvard CAPS/Harris).

If he is doing so well at this point, goes the thinking, things can only get better for him and worse for a sitting President facing ever more uncomfortable questions about his administration’s performance in tackling the virus.

Yet it would be foolish to take a Biden victory in November for granted. The performances of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee thus far have been faltering. He seems hesitant, not quite focussed, which does not bode well for the campaign and the televised debates. Mr Trump, with his bully boy genius for homing in on a killer nickname, calls him “Sleepy Joe”. All Mr Biden has come up with so far for his opponent is “President Tweety”.

On the key question the voters will ask – what would a President Biden do better – he is reaching for an answer but is not there yet. He says America cannot go back to the way it was before the virus, but what that means in practical terms he is yet to flesh out. Will he run on a Sanders manifesto sans Sanders? And how will that potential gamble sit with millions of Americans already fearful of the future?

The only predictable element in the months to come is the US President’s unpredictability. If anything he is hungrier for victory than he was four years ago, which makes him a more formidable and dangerous opponent. He is lining up his enemies, with China and the World Health Organisation at the head of the queue.

Sleepy Joe versus President Tweety. Not the most important fight in the world at this moment, but it matters.