Unlike China's Xi, Trump is not president for life

Unlike the president of China, Donald Trump is not president for life. This and the political realities of facing reelection in the 2020 presidential election will likely force Trump into eventually making a deal with China.

With the passing of the deadline for forestalling additional U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods, there has been much speculation surrounding Trump’s thinking.

Some have speculated that he is simply negotiating, believing the strength of the U.S. economy gives him room to play hardball. Others think that the president believes the tariffs will hurt China more than the U.S., emboldening Trump as he perceives an advantage. 

It could also be that the president, used to being able to walk away from a deal, isn’t considering the different dynamics involved in negotiating with a sovereign power as opposed to a contractor bidding to construct one of his new buildings.

Still others conjecture that the president is using the potential negative near-term effects on the economy to force the Federal Reserve into lowering rates.

However, even if the tariffs were to slow economic growth enough to force the Federal Reserve into lowering rates, it seems counterproductive to intentionally slow the economy through tariffs if the point of lower rates is to juice the economy.

That would merely be trading the hoped-for positive near-term economic effects of lower rates against the actual negative near-term effects of reduced trade and declining business sentiment.

It could also be that Trump is attempting to distract the media — using the escalation in the trade war to crowd out coverage of the ongoing battle with Democrats over access to his taxes and special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE's full report. 

Ultimately, it is impossible to know Trump's mindset unless you are in the room with him and his advisers. Even then, some say that it may change depending on what the political pundits with the most influence over his base are saying. 

What we do know, and what is most important, is one simple but powerful fact: Unlike China’s President Xi Jinping, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: 'I will not let Iran have nuclear weapons' Rocket attack hits Baghdad's Green Zone amid escalating tensions: reports Buttigieg on Trump tweets: 'I don't care' MORE is not president for life, and he has an election coming up soon.

To put it into business parlance, the Chinese president is like Warren Buffett while President Trump is like the CEO of a publicly traded company.

In March 2018, China removed term limits on its president. This is the equivalent in the world of business of not having to worry about quarterly results and instead having the mandate to prioritize long-term results over short-term gains. Think of Buffett, who possesses the power of a financial autocrat.

Because of the authoritarian nature of China’s political system, even if there is political discontent resulting from the negative economic and equity market impacts of a heightened trade war, the Chinese president can weather it. 

He can even use a trade war to his advantage, fanning the flames of nationalism by deftly portraying himself as standing up to the American president. This would shrewdly tie into strongly held feelings there that it is time for China to be seen and treated as an equal, not in a subservient manner.

Conversely, President Trump is more akin to the CEO of a publicly traded company that ignores the next quarter’s results at his or her peril. For President Trump, the key results are monthly employment numbers, the direction of equity markets and quarterly GDP growth. 

Adding to the pressure is the nearness of the 2020 presidential election. It is much more difficult for an incumbent president to win reelection during a recession. It is also difficult for a president to win reelection in an environment of malaise. Just ask former President Carter.

Volatile and declining stock markets along with slowing economic and job growth would be untenable for President Trump leading up to the U.S. presidential election. Trump’s political advisers will be aware of this. 

Additionally, the president has previously taken credit for the performance of the stock market and the economy. Declining equity markets and a significant slowing in economic growth would take away that argument in his reelection bid.   

In the end, it is likely that President Trump is forced to acquiesce, negotiate some high-profile but relatively modest “wins,” and claim victory.

There is precedent for this with the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. President Trump levied tariffs on goods from Mexico, Mexico retaliated, and then they made a deal that was more sizzle than substance. 

That is the best-case scenario. Trump is playing a dangerous game, a game that could easily lead to a miscalculation of the economic effects resulting in lost votes in 2020.

There is a saying that when you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind. Let’s hope President Trump stops sowing the seeds of a growing trade war with China sooner rather than later. 

That will depend on whether the president calculates he needs continuing economic growth more than muffling coverage of the Mueller report and his tax returns. 

In the end, this will likely be a missed opportunity to even up the trade score with China. Tariffs can be effective, but they are ineffective when they are sudden and severe — as in the present case. Yes, you may get some token concessions that make good headlines, but real gains happen over time. 

Companies need time to change supply chains. Sudden tariffs don’t allow for that. Severe or punitive measures are very different from reciprocal tariffs. 

Chris Macke is the author of "Solutionomics." He is a contributor to the Fed Beige Book. Find him on Twitter: @solutionomics.