Trump’s Anti-Trade Message Could be Hard to Implement

By Chris Adams

Pop quiz on trade policy:

The North American Free Trade Agreement has been “devastating” and “a big mistake. … We should use the hammer of a potential opt-out as leverage to ensure that we actually get labor and environmental standards that are enforced.”

Who said it?

It sounds a lot like Donald Trump in 2016. But, in fact, that was Barack Obama in 2008.

Surprised? John G. Murphy, the senior vice president for international policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told Paul Miller fellows that they shouldn’t be.

While the Trump administration has been aggressive and vocal about wanting to clamp down on imports it says are harming American companies and industries, Murphy pointed out that beating up on trade has often been a bipartisan exercise.

As the Trump administration begins to dismantle the free-trade ethos that governed commerce the past few decades, the chamber will continue to advocate for the kind of agreements that have come under attack, he said.

Murphy discussed the plan by the Trump administration to drastically restructure the nation’s trading priorities. He said the current system – a U.S. market that is largely open to imports, while tariffs in developing countries are much higher – is “like going into a basketball game down by a dozen points from the tipoff.”

He reviewed evidence on U.S. trading patterns – those with the 20 nations subject to free-trade agreements and those that aren’t.

He also reviewed public opinion on trade issues. While it’s true that trade has been a hot issue since the 2016 election, it’s also true that Americans aren’t deeply invested in their trade views.

“There hasn’t been a time quite like this where a successful winning candidate has focused so much on trade,” he said. “But it’s hard to know what on earth the American public really thinks on trade.”

Even after the anti-trade rhetoric of the 2016 election, far more Americans see foreign trade as “an opportunity for economic growth” than see it as a “threat to the economy,” according to a Gallup poll Murphy cited.

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