By Alex Leary
WASHINGTON -- President Trump is seizing on the trade deal with China as proof that he is delivering on his campaign promises, but whether that message resonates with voters could hinge on how the agreement plays out in the coming months.
For now, Mr. Trump and his campaign say the deal with China -- along with Thursday's Senate passage of a reworked North American trade pact -- has shown that the president can stake out tough positions to achieve better deals for American businesses and workers and will do so again to win additional concessions.
The campaign is planning ads around the trade deals that seek to reinforce a broad "promises made, promises kept" message and target American workers, including union members and factory workers whose industries have been hit by decades of U.S. trade policy. Mr. Trump is expected to give greater prominence to the deals in coming rallies, according to a person familiar with the planning. On Sunday, he will highlight the pacts before the American Farm Bureau Federation's annual convention in Austin, Texas.
The China deal, while limited in scope, calmed a tumultuous two-year trade war under Mr. Trump and could help maintain a strong economy that has been his strongest asset heading into his re-election bid.
"He's sort of settled things down," said Republican pollster Dave Winston, who isn't associated with Mr. Trump's campaign. "You've seen the stock market respond positively, and that's a lot of people's retirement. This is a reinforcement, at least for the moment, that the economy is headed in a positive direction."
Mr. Trump's campaign and Republican allies are also seeking to contrast the trade deals this week with the president's impeachment and trial getting under way in the Senate on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. They contend that his efforts signal to voters that he is getting things done despite the partisan battles in Washington.
"Every candidate for president over many decades has promised to stand up to China, but no one ever did until Donald Trump came along. The signing of the phase-one deal shows that his America First approach is working," said campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh.
But any political momentum over Mr. Trump's handling of China could fade if Beijing fails to follow through on its commitments to increase its U.S. imports by $200 billion over two years. Tougher trade issues also remain unresolved and have been punted to future negotiations -- and, notably, painful tariffs remain in place. While the economy is strong, U.S. factory output has slowed.
"True to form, Trump is getting precious little in return for the significant pain and uncertainty he has imposed on our economy, farmers and workers," said former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Other Democratic candidates have also criticized Mr. Trump over what they describe as erratic negotiation tactics, but they have generally supported a tougher stance on China. And the new trade deal with Mexico and Canada was shaped by Democrats and drew mostly praise.
As a candidate in 2016, Mr. Trump made American jobs a central focus of his campaign and repeatedly said China was ripping off the U.S. and blasted large trade deals such as NAFTA and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership. That message helped Mr. Trump narrowly flip industrial states Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
"It was hugely effective," said Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg.
But tariffs that Mr. Trump imposed on hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese imports drew backlash from the business community and rattled farmers, who saw retaliatory action from Beijing and plummeting sales that required billions in government payments.
The phase-one deal reached this week leaves in place U.S. tariffs on about $370 billion in Chinese goods. Mr. Greenberg said public opinion polls show the tariffs are unpopular, particularly among independent voters, and that will impede Mr. Trump's efforts to portray the deal as a win.
Alex Conant, a Republican strategist in Washington who advises some companies fighting Mr. Trump's trade policies, agreed on that point. "The most important factor in Trump's re-election is the economy, and tariffs are bad for American consumers and businesses."
Mr. Trump on Thursday said the China deal was evidence that his tariff strategy had paid off, tweeting that "farmers are really happy" with the outcome.
As Democratic presidential candidates gathered last Tuesday for the debate in Des Moines, Iowa, Mr. Trump's campaign paid for a plane to fly over the city, towing a green banner that read "Trump Fights for Iowa Farmers!"
On the debate stage, Democrats echoed themes Mr. Trump harnessed in 2016, but still sought ways to criticize his approach to trade negotiations. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont noted his past votes against Nafta and extending permanent normal trade relations with China. "The answer," he added, "is we could do much better than a Trump-led trade deal."
Write to Alex Leary at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 19, 2020 07:14 ET (12:14 GMT)
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