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The 2020 trade war president

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Multiple U.S. trade conflicts — with China, Mexico and, waiting their turn, Europe, Japan and Canada — are roiling the world economy. But one or more of them is still likely to be on the boil late next year, when President Trump faces a possibly tough re-election.

Quick take: Experts queried by Axios say Trump is likely to want to keep needling trade grievances through Election Day next year as evidence that the U.S. faces a showdown in which only he is equipped to prevail.

The big picture: Historically speaking, wartime national leaders anywhere rarely lose re-election. That explains what appears to be a morphing of Trump trade policy from allegations of unfairness to Americans to a 2020 campaign issue.

  • "By demonizing his so-called 'enemies,' both domestic and foreign, and presenting himself as the savior and defender of American democracy, whatever the issue of the day is, Trump is likely to present it as a war that he is valiantly fighting on behalf of the people,” said Laura Smith, a historian at the University of Mississippi.
  • "Tariff threats against China and Mexico, and potentially Europe, play very well to Trump’s base, and probably speak to other disaffected voters," said Gary Hufbauer, an economist with the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Just Thursday, on the way out of France back to the U.S. after the D-Day commemoration, Trump threw a new trade salvo at Beijing, threatening tariffs on another $300 billion in Chinese goods unless the right deal is agreed to.

There is no precedent of a president running on a record of being tough with tariffs and trade, said Patrick Maney, a professor at Boston College.

  • In fact, until a new 1974 law suddenly granted authority to the President, Congress controlled tariffs, thus pushing the White House to the background in such disputes, Manley said.
  • And when tariffs have been an issue, it's generally been in the middle of a president's term, rather than during an election campaign, said Smith.

Still, presidents have tried generally to look hard-boiled around financial issues:

  • For his re-election in 1832, President Andrew Jackson depicted himself declaring war against what he called "the Monster Bank," the precursor to the Fed, Smith said. Jackson won.
  • “Candidates and presidential incumbents have historically been creative in what they choose to declare war on and therefore center their campaign around. The key is that they create a sense of urgency, presenting themselves as the candidate who truly understands the issue and can defend the American people," Smith said.
  • "Whether Trump in 2020 can re-create Jackson in 1832 is yet to be seen.”

The bottom line: Bruce Mehlman, a Washington, DC lobbyist, said that while Trump will want to showcase that he is "standing up to China," he is unlikely to explicitly call himself a “war-time President.” That, Mehlman said, would invite "comparisons to [George W.] Bush wars that Trump opposed, and invite easy attacks on his Vietnam non-service."

  • Thought bubble from Axios' Scott Rosenberg: "It's interesting that (a) there was no 9/11 or 'remember the Maine' or Gulf of Tonkin-style precipitating incident to mobilize the country into feeling like 'this is a war;' and (b) The 'trade war' conceit hides the reality that the casualties tend to be on our own side and they are self-inflicted/friendly fire."