Trump on trade one year on: Hopeful signs of progress, big decisions yet to come
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Donald Trump was elected in 2016 due in part to the big promises he made to fix America’s trade problems. As he said at his inauguration, bad trade deals, unfairly subsidized imports, and manufacturing decline have yielded “carnage” in many industrial cities. One year on, the president has done some good things for the U.S. economy, taken a few concrete steps towards fixing trade, and set in motion many investigations that could and should lead to an improvement in the trade and domestic manufacturing picture. But the big moves have yet to come. We’re waiting, hopefully and expectantly, for the decisions and actions that will make the Trump administration a decisive force for fundamental economic improvement.

The Coalition for Prosperous America is a bipartisan coalition uniting manufacturing companies, labor unions, and agricultural groups around the key economic issues of fixing U.S. trade, improving U.S. manufacturing, and putting Americans’ living standards back on the growth path they enjoyed in the 20th century. We represent 4 million Americans who have realized that the old-fashioned notion that “free trade” always benefits all nations is misleading and just plain wrong, in theory and in practice. It’s time for a new approach that puts the American worker and farmer first. We’re nationalist—but we’re also internationalist. Economic nationalism does not mean walking away from our political and foreign policy commitments, but it means that the government’s first priority must be the welfare of its own citizens.

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President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: 'I don't trust everybody in the White House' JPMorgan CEO withdraws from Saudi conference Trump defends family separations at border MORE has made a few excellent moves in his first year in office. Withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was a smart move. This trade agreement would have enabled many Asian nations to take advantage of the huge U.S. consumer market without providing equivalent opportunities for U.S. producers. The president has appointed some excellent people to key economic positions. I’m thinking of Peter Navarro as White House Trade Advisor, Wilbur RossWilbur Louis RossHarris accuses GOP of ‘weaponizing’ 2020 Census DOJ: Commerce chief spoke with Bannon, Sessions about census citizenship question Oversight Dems call for probe into citizenship question on 2020 census MORE at the Department of Commerce, and Robert LighthizerRobert (Bob) Emmet LighthizerMcConnell urges GOP senators to call Trump about tariffs Companies brace for trade war MORE as the U.S. Trade Representative. All these men have shown the insight and the toughness to stake out unconventional positions and act on their beliefs.

President Trump also deserves credit for the strong performance of the U.S. economy in the second half of 2017 and what looks like consistently strong economic growth for 2018. Much of what happens in the U.S. and world economy is out of a president’s control. But in 2017, the pickup in heavy manufacturing was due in large part to the boom in the oil, gas, and coal industries that followed the administration’s moves on deregulation. Corporate tax reform has triggered a stock market boom as companies and their investors digest the impact of a large cut in the corporate tax rate.

Furthermore, President Trump’s saber-rattling on trade issues has already benefited the economy: Toyota’s recent decision to build a $1.6 billion plant in Alabama and Fiat Chrysler’s announced plan to transfer Ram truck production from Mexico to its Warren Truck plant (creating 2,500 jobs) show that American corporate leaders now recognize that voters care about U.S. jobs and will act accordingly in the voting booth.

On the negative side of the ledger, we feel that with tax reform, the administration missed an opportunity create an America First tax system that would end offshoring incentives by taxing imported goods and services while exporting tax free. And the president has been slow so far to take action against China, which is both the largest source of U.S. trade deficits, and the world’s biggest trade cheater. While the North Korea nuclear problem is significant, caving to China on trade did not help Presidents Bush or Obama solve the issue.

These disappointments are due in large part to a White House team that is divided between Trumpian populists and old-fashioned Wall Street plutocrats. Trump is far from the first president to preside over a disunited, contentious team of advisors, but we would like more evidence that the president recognizes that the people who put him in the White House are expecting some strong action to address that industrial “carnage.” Voter approval won’t continue if he listens too much to those who take shopping trips in private jets.

However, there is much that is hopeful in President Trump’s actions. His administration has launched investigations into unfair trade practices by foreign competitors in the steel, aluminum and solar panel industries. There is also the renegotiation of trade agreements with Mexico, Canada and South Korea, where the president has been bold enough to say he’ll rip up agreements if they can’t be modified sufficiently to help the U.S. economy.

If 2017 was the year for laying the groundwork on a new trade policy, we’re waiting and hoping that 2018 will be a year of decisive action.

Jeff Ferry is CPA research director.