Trump gets to work for his blue-collar base

Trump: America first and only America first
Trump: America first and only America first

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Trump: America first and only America first 01:19

Story highlights

  • Trump eyes blue-collar base in Monday blitz of executive actions and media appearances
  • The President says from now on US will only pursue two-way trade pacts

(CNN)This is what "America First" looks like.

President Donald Trump is showing that he is not forgetting the blue-collar voters who sent him to the White House, making clear during an energetic first full weekday in office that his administration will be devoted to US workers.
Flexing his broad executive powers for the first time on the economy, Trump formally withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that was the centerpiece of the Obama administration's Asia strategy.
He also gave notice that he hopes to get a better deal for American workers by renegotiating the North America Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico. The President put a bug in the ear of business executives, warning in a meeting they would face huge tariffs if they send manufacturing abroad. And he huddled with union leaders, promising a torrent of new jobs and factories.
Tuesday, the President will meet with the heads of the Big Three automakers: Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler.
"We are going to put a lot of people back to work. We are going to use common sense and we are going to do it the way it is supposed to be done," Trump said Monday.
Trump's moves also reversed the bipartisan orthodoxy advanced by successive presidents that has viewed US interests as best served by spreading American-style trade across the globe through large multilateral trade agreements. From now on, Trump said, the US will seek bilateral deals that will most of all benefit Americans and be quickly terminated if US partners cheat.
His action quickly scrambled political lines in Washington, as he set himself against large sections of his own Republican Party and consolidated his position on economic territory long occupied by Democrats.
Trump's vow to kill or renegotiate multilateral trade deals was an important factor in his narrow November election victories in industrialized states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which upended the political map based on the votes of many workers -- including Democrats -- who feel left behind by economic globalization.
Monday's moves offered a first glimpse of the "America First" principle that the President said in his inaugural address on Friday would now undergird every decision on foreign, economic and trade policy.
Trump's spokesman Sean Spicer said that Trump was deeply preoccupied with the lives of people who helped him win last November.
"I think that's where his head's at, is trying to look at those people that come to his rallies, that have come to his events, that he's met with in person that are struggling and say 'Mr. Trump, I'm working as hard as I can. I'm working two jobs, I'm doing everything by the rules, and I keep getting screwed.'"
"That's what he's fighting for," Spicer said.

Democrats on notice

Trump's success in transcending party lines -- at least for now -- was evident in an approving statement about his TPP move from the AFL-CIO, the powerhouse union that endorsed Democrat Hillary Clinton for President last year.
"Today's announcement that the US is withdrawing from TPP and seeking a reopening of NAFTA is an important first step toward a trade policy that works for working people," said AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka.
In a political sense, Trump's busy first weekday in office also put Democrats on the back foot. He used the power and visibility of the presidency to impress his midwestern base of union and blue-collar voters -- even as the demoralized party of ex-President Barack Obama struggles to settle on a message to win them back.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer had only a terse response to Trump's move to pull out of the TPP, a deal the Obama administration spent years trying to negotiate but was unable to get ratified by Congress.
"TPP was dead long before President Trump took office. We await real action on trade," said Schumer in a statement.

Fast start

The White House understands it needs a fast start since Trump entered office with the lowest approval ratings for a newly inaugurated president in modern times.
Its answer was a swift display of executive power to generate a sense of momentum for his new administration as forthcoming attempts to create jobs through legislation, such as an infrastructure package that many Republicans oppose, could take months.
"I am very encouraged by the degree to which they are going to use executive orders to ... dramatically change things very rapidly," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump supporter, at a Heritage Foundation lecture.
Time and again Monday, reporters were herded into the Oval Office and the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing to see Trump in action, signing executive orders or laying down the law to union leaders or business leaders from blue chip companies like Dell, Ford, Johnson & Johnson and Lockheed Martin.
The image of the new President as a man of action was a sign that after a rocky first weekend, which included massive protests nationwide, his off-key speech at the CIA and a new media feud centering around the crowd size at Friday's inauguration, that the new White House was finding its feet and able to drive a coordinated political message.

Dangerous strategy

But it's one thing to maintain a solid public relations strategy. It's another to pull off the ambitious reorganizing of US trade and commerce that Trump is proposing. So Monday represented only a small first step.
The President's belief that trade pacts are responsible for the flight of many US jobs overseas represents a political risk, since higher tariffs and trade disputes that may result could make foreign goods more expensive for consumers or slow economic growth.
Disrupting NAFTA may also be dangerous: Trade between the US, Canada and Mexico hit $1.1 trillion in 2016, according to a Wharton Business School report. Supporters of the pact say it supports millions of jobs in the United States that could be at risk if it falters.
Trump's decision to reopen NAFTA therefore represents another significant gamble. For all his claims to being one of the world's great deal makers, the leaders of Canada and Mexico will be under intense political pressure to seal a better deal for their own people in new NAFTA negotiations -- and are unlikely to simply roll over and allow Trump to win all the spoils.
Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto put Trump on notice Monday for tough negotiations, saying "the Mexican president wants "bilateral relationship with US to translate into more trade and jobs."
While Democrats risked being outmaneuvered by Trump on the trade issue -- which played a powerful role in shaping the party's presidential primary, there remain plenty of other areas of contention that suggest the President's honeymoon with unions could be short-lived.
The President's labor secretary nominee, Andrew Puzder, for instance opposes calls for a rise in the minimum wage -- an issue that glues Democrats to trade union voters. His administration's business-first mantra could involve efforts to weaken labor protections. And if as expected, Trump chooses a conservative Supreme Court justice, he could rebalance the court in a way that could be damaging to union rights.
Trump critics point out that photo-ops and episodes like his claim to have saved jobs at air conditioner firm Carrier during his presidential transition, represent a minuscule step toward creating millions of jobs. And Democrats also Monday accused Trump of hypocrisy for lecturing US corporate bosses on the need to keep manufacturing on US soil.
"I'd remind the President of the two simple rules he laid out in his inaugural address -- "Buy American and Hire American" -- two rules that his current businesses do not follow," Schumer said on the Senate floor.
"Trump shirts and ties are made in China. Trump furniture is made in Turkey. While he's importuning on others to "make it in America," he should start by demanding it of his own business."

TPP fallout

There are also geopolitical implications from Trump's decision to pull out of the TPP that could haunt the administration in future. The US withdrawal will certainly benefit an emboldened China and the new administration already appears on collision course with the rising Asian power.
US allies like Singapore meanwhile have repeatedly warned US credibility in Asia would be seriously damaged if Washington pulled out of the TPP.
The case against Trump's action was spelled out by Republican Sen. John McCain, who is emerging as a fierce critic of the new administration's foreign policy.
"This decision will forfeit the opportunity to promote American exports, reduce trade barriers, open new markets, and protect American invention and innovation," McCain said in a statement.
"It will create an opening for China to rewrite the economic rules of the road at the expense of American workers. And it will send a troubling signal of American disengagement in the Asia-Pacific region at a time we can least afford it."