As the media continues to fixate on President Trump's imaginary “ties with Russia” (strangely enough, the Clintons' very real “ties with everywhere” never interested them), reporters, and ordinary Americans, are missing a much more important story: the opening chapter in Trump's efforts to reform U.S. trade policies and our trading relationships with other countries.
The Trump administration has already notched some impressive wins, which deserve to be recounted, although much more is to come. These wins, moreover, are consistent with Trump's message during the campaign. He spoke again and again about the pain and job losses caused by unfair trade agreements, and he promised that, as President, he would broker better deals that protected American interests. So what has he done?
First, Trump has pushed back against recent decisions by the Canadian government that subject U.S. milk exports to tariffs, harming dairy farmers in New York state, in particular. He even earned praise from Senator Chuck Schumer, usually no Trump fan, for his bold approach. “I support President Trump's statement...(and) I look forward to working with the administration to pressure and persuade the Canadians to reverse this unwise policy,” said Schumer. Partly in retaliation for the Canadian aversion to U.S. milk, President Trump imposed tariffs on Canadian lumber.
Second, Trump delivered on his promise to improve the terms of the U.S.-China trade relationship, specifically by opening China to U.S. beef and natural gas exports and to banking and financial services companies. Granted, China's status as a “currency manipulator,” and other thorny issues, have been put on the back burner, as Trump seeks China's help in bringing North Korea to heel. Still, both countries have committed to making further progress within 100 days.
Third, the Senate confirmed Trump's outstanding and highly qualified pick as U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, on May 11. Despite the acrimony and partisanship that prevails in Congress these days, the vote was not even close: 82-14. (36 Democrats voted for Lighthizer.) This strong endorsement of the Trump administration's point man for trade came in part due to both parties' recognition that Americans overwhelmingly agree with the President that existing trade agreements have cost American jobs and need to be replaced. For instance, in a Quinnipiac poll done shortly after the election, Americans expressed a desire to renegotiate major trade deals, even if this meant that they would have to pay more for some products. Sixty-four percent endorsed this approach, compared to 28 percent who were opposed. Given these numbers, Democrats would be crazy to oppose President Trump's aggressive moves to achieve greater trade fairness. And crazy they may be, but not crazy enough to commit political suicide.
Lastly, on May 18 Trump took his biggest step yet towards a “New Deal” on trade: he initiated a structured process for the renegotiation of NAFTA, our free trade agreement with Canada and Mexico. The potential implications are, as Trump put it himself, “massive." Moreover, Trump has unusual leverage, given his repeated statements that he is willing to “terminate” NAFTA if he isn't satisfied with the renegotiation. At long last, that “giant sucking sound” of U.S. job losses to Mexico, caused by NAFTA and predicted back in 1992 by maverick Presidential candidate Ross Perot, may finally be reversed. The media may not care, but you can bet that many voters would be elated.
Already, therefore, Trump is taking action on trade to fulfill the heartfelt desire of the American people, including Republicans and Democrats, to reconsider trade agreements that aren't in our national interest. On this issue, perhaps more than any other, President Trump has an opportunity to unite the country, as well as give a shot in the arm to struggling American workers.
On trade, Trump is succeeding, where other Presidents have failed. He has made protecting American jobs a priority for the first time in decades. No wonder the liberal media would rather talk about something else!
Dr. Nicholas L. Waddy is a Associate Professor of History, SUNY Alfred, and blogs at: www.waddyisright.com