Free traders on the left and the right routinely excoriated Donald Trump for his willingness to implement tariffs on foreign imports. With the election of Joe Biden in 2020, many hoped the incoming president would reverse the former president’s “protectionist” trade policies and return to free trade orthodoxy. This, however, never happened. In fact, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai, just two weeks ago, pushed back against claims made by the World Trade Organization that the Trump-era tariffs violated international trade rules: The WTO is on “very, very thin ice.”
President Biden has, time and time again, skirted the issue of tariffs. Instead, he has opted to quietly continue his predecessor’s America-first tariff hikes, despite having forcefully criticized Trump’s trade policy with China in 2019: “President Trump may think he’s being tough on China. All that he’s delivered as a consequence of that is American farmers, manufacturers and consumers losing and paying more.” Biden must have conveniently forgotten this previous stance. By keeping in place the Trump tariffs, he has successfully frustrated economic liberals in both the Democratic and Republican parties.
In July of 2022, the Biden administration mulled over the prospect of lifting billions of dollars worth of tariffs on Chinese goods. The rationale was that in doing so, inflation, which has adversely affected American consumers for the past two years, would be eased. This, however, was an economic fallacy. Even the Peterson Institute for International Economics, whose sole mission is to fight for trade liberalization, conceded that the proposed tariff reductions would have a mostly trivial effect on inflation: “The direct effect of removing tariffs on imports from China could lower consumer price index (CPI) inflation by 0.26 percentage point — only marginally reducing inflation.”
Forgotten Factory Workers
After months of silence from the administration, it eventually came to a decision: to do nothing. When push came to shove, Biden’s team realized that, though the tariffs may not be economically sound, they were a political winner. The fact of the matter is that tariff implementation and economic nationalism more broadly are popular with the electorate.
Trump, to his credit, tapped into a very real feeling that economic liberalism and free trade deals do not positively affect rank-and-file American workers in the flyover states. For decades, American cities, once home to booming industries, have been hollowed out by free trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Workers in the manufacturing industry have, undoubtedly, been forgotten about. They are told to enter into worker retraining programs and learn new skills. In other words, “suck it up and find something else to do.”
Trump, in echoing some of Pat Buchanan’s rhetoric about free trade, offered the “forgotten man” a little bit of hope that he would no longer fall victim to the global economy. In doing so, Trump was tirelessly lambasted as protectionist, isolationist, and reactionary. What’s more, he was frequently accused by the free-trade elite of inciting trade wars with China and other countries.
This aside, workers in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania applauded Trump for his economic nationalist tendencies. The United Steelworkers union, for instance, has praised President Trump’s tough-on-China trade policy on multiple occasions. The union’s president, Kameen Thompson, has credited the tariffs with reinvigorating the steel industry and allowing for plants to hire more workers. While some may see this as trivial, it is emblematic of a notable boon to domestic manufacturing. Everyone, both on the right and left, should celebrate this development.
Biden Keeps Tariffs
When Biden assumed office in 2021, the future of American trade policy seemed uncertain. Interests that benefited from the Trump-era tariffs, though, were quick to urge Biden not to go back to the old tariff regime. Steel groups were especially vocal. In a letter written to the administration in May of 2021, a conglomerate of steel interests stated that “the tariffs have been a success” and that “eliminating the steel tariffs now would undermine the viability of our industry.”
In an attempt to placate both sides of the trade issue, Biden considered only modestly reforming Trump’s tariff policies. Ultimately, though, he smartly kept the tariffs in place.
As for the future of America’s tariff policy, it looks as though not much will change. Tai, in an interview given to Marketplace just last week, signaled that the Trump-era tariffs are probably here to stay: “if you’re looking at a future where the U.S. no longer produces steel or aluminum anymore, the question I would pose to anyone on the street is, would you feel safe?”
Whether the administration’s rationale for keeping the tariffs is national security or protecting domestic industry from foreign competition (or perhaps a confluence of both), one thing is clear: Trump was right on trade, and Biden knows it.