100 Days In, How is Trump Doing on Trade?
President Trump rode into office 100 days ago promising to shake things up for America’s working class.
In his inaugural address, Trump echoed the promises of his campaign, pledging that job creation would be a pillar of his presidency. He said he’d put America first and reshape our trade policy. He repeated his “Buy American, Hire American” pledge. He vowed to rebuild our roads, bridges, airports, tunnels and railways.
Trump certainly has done a lot of talking (and tweeting) over the past few months. But what’s actually changed in the past 100 days? Has Trump managed to reshape the landscape — or has he been all talk?
Let’s look at the evidence.
One of Trump’s oft-repeated campaign promises was to stop the outsourcing of jobs. He regularly called out big companies when they sent jobs overseas, and just before he took office, he famously helped negotiate a deal to prevent hundreds of jobs from being outsourced at the Carrier facility in Indianapolis (although hundreds of other Carrier jobs are still headed to Mexico, as are jobs at nearby Rexnord).
In these first 100 days, several large corporations have made a big fuss about creating or retaining American jobs. But the evidence that they did this because of Trump is murky. While a handful of the announcements are new, many companies had these plans on the books before Trump’s election and saw a public relations opportunity to make nice with the new administration.
Now, some companies are indeed looking at expanding U.S. operations and/or sourcing more of their materials from the United States because of potential Trump policy changes. Others are reconsidering plans to send jobs abroad. But many are still in a wait-and-see mode, as there’s still no evidence Washington is functional again.
Trump’s economic development efforts via Twitter have also slowed. While Trump said he’d be willing to call every company looking at shipping jobs overseas, that follow-through hasn’t materialized.
Smart, targeted policy will ultimately be the deciding factor. That policy work starts with trade, and it is here where the president has begun to make some real progress.
Trump quickly made good on his campaign promise to pull out of the dead-on-arrival Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal. He’s also launched various initiatives that could bear some fruit, including executive orders to strengthen Buy America preferences and reduce the trade deficit. But most of that work is now in the planning stages; the real test will come this summer when more concrete action plans are unveiled.
On Trump’s order, the Commerce Department is investigating whether steel and aluminum imports are threatening America’s national security. If Commerce determines these imports are indeed a threat, and Trump opts to act accordingly, it would be a major win in the effort to combat unfair trade, particularly with China.
Other promises are so far incomplete. His policy on using American iron and steel in energy pipelines is still being formulated by the Commerce Department, and the White House didn’t require the Keystone XL pipeline to be made in America.
Renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) still awaits the confirmation of Robert Lighthizer as the U.S. Trade Representative. A leaked (and repudiated) draft of NAFTA renegotiation priorities was unimpressive, and Trump just this week threatened to pull out of NAFTA all together (although he quickly backtracked).
Meanwhile, the rhetoric of senior administration officials runs hold and cold. This week it’s hot, with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross slamming Canada on dairy and softwood lumber and helping lead the effort on aluminum.
Then there’s Trump’s broken promise to name China a currency manipulator. This was a missed opportunity to deter China from bad behavior in the future, and Trump disregarded a pledge he repeatedly made to factory workers on the campaign trail; he explicitly gave this issue away in exchange for Chinese diplomatic cooperation on North Korea.
Meanwhile, Trump still has big picture initiatives to tackle, from major infrastructure investment to tax reform. Given the gridlock that continues in Washington these days — and indeed, the staunchly divided political landscape throughout the country — accomplishing these tasks will not be easy. Where the administration spends its political capital will matter: border walls or deficient bridges; health care or a tax overhaul.
All in all, it’s unlikely that most manufacturing workers are feeling the impact of Trump’s policy work, at least so far. But it’s still early in his presidency, and there are a few signs that the tide is indeed shifting.
We can look to South Carolina to see how.
London-based Liberty House Group announced last week it has agreed to purchase the shuttered Georgetown Steelworks plant, which closed in 2015 and left hundreds of steelworkers out of work.
Liberty House executive chairman Sanjeev Gupta said in a statement that the plant “gives us a strong platform from which to launch our strategy in the USA” and added it is the “first significant step in Liberty’s plan to make major investments in the U.S. steel industry.” The company is even in talks with the United Steelworkers union to recruit a workforce to reopen the plant.
This flies against the conventional wisdom that Trump “can’t bring steel jobs back.” A British-based steel company looking to launch major operations on U.S. soil? Seems like a sign that things may be on the right track.