Nobody wants to admit it, but the new president’s early moves look at lot like the old president’s.
I’ll protect your livelihoods, the newly elected president promised factory employees whose jobs were in danger.
I’ll save you money by rejecting a costly overhaul of my own aircraft, he told taxpayers a couple of weeks later.
I’ll spend billions to repair the country’s crumbling roads and bridges, creating jobs in the process, he told Congress.
I’ll sell my agenda by using the bully pulpit, he told the press, holding rallies around the country and shaming corporate greed that comes at the expense of ordinary people. And to do it all, he would set up a new political organization to pressure anyone who refused to play along.
His opponents were horrified, and said he was abusing the power of the Oval Office.
The year was 2009. The new president was Barack Obama.
Flash forward to today: Donald Trump is following much the same political blueprint his predecessor and longtime adversary laid out years ago, signaling he’ll actively intervene in the U.S. economy while antagonizing free-marketeers who say his meddling will end in disaster. It’s a funhouse-mirror version of Obama’s early image of the presidency — the man of action for down-and-out Americans who desperately want to see that somebody is on their side.
Only this time, Democrats aren’t hailing the president-to-be’s efforts as a needed corrective to capitalism run amok. And Republicans, aside from a principled few, aren’t quoting from dog-eared copies of The Road to Serfdom to warn of impending socialist tyranny. The parties have almost completely reversed positions in response to Trump, testament to the Death Star-like pull of Washington partisanship.
The situations are, of course, vastly different: Obama was inheriting an economy in freefall, with the economy losing 500,000 jobs a month, while Trump enters office with an unemployment rate of just 4.6 percent. As is the message: Obama spoke of building a high-tech economy for the future; Trump vows to bring back the jobs of yesteryear. And the style: Trump threatens punishment; Obama tried persuasion.
Still, the superficial parallels are striking: Trump cut a deal with Carrier to keep jobs from going to Mexico, much like Obama asked the CEO of Caterpillar to halt planned layoffs. Trump said a planned upgrade of Air Force One was a waste of money, while Obama said he didn’t need expensive new Marine One helicopters. Trump wants a $1 trillion infrastructure package, while Obama eventually settled for $830 billion. Trump has launched a “thank you tour” of states he won, while Obama stumped for his stimulus bill. And both men believed in the need to set up an external political arm — Obama for America vs. Trump’s reported Unleash the Potential — to keep their grass-roots bases fired up and ready to go.
The details may differ, but the political calculations are eerily similar — so much so that the president’s former campaign and White House guru, David Axelrod, has recognized the potency of Trump’s economic showmanship.
“Without knowing details of what was promised, any fair reading is that the Carrier intervention is a good early win for @realDonaldTrump,” Axelrod tweeted on Dec. 1. And again on Tuesday, sharing the results of a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll that showed Trump’s interventions meeting with overwhelming public approval, he commented: “When I said, whatever the wisdom as policy, this was smart politics, a bunch of folks got their knickers in a knot.”
But Obama never got much credit for his own theatrical efforts to save Rust Belt jobs. As the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein has noted, one of his first acts as president-elect was going to Elkhart, Indiana, to sell his stimulus package as a solution to the nation’s economic ills. At the time, Elkhart was reeling from the aftershocks of the financial recession, on top of decades of industrial change and global competition.
The stimulus passed, and some of the money flowed to Elkhart. But in 2012, the area voted for Mitt Romney, and it went for Donald Trump in 2016. When he started calling around, Stein found that few in the town had any idea that the president’s policies had helped them.
It was a similar story in East Peoria, Illinois, where Obama delivered his version of the Carrier deal in a speech to employees of Caterpillar, the construction equipment company. If Congress passed the stimulus, Obama declared, “a new wave of innovation, activity and construction will be unleashed all across America.” “Think about all the work out there to be done,” he said. “And Caterpillar will be selling the equipment that does the work.” (In an embarrassing moment for the White House, Caterpillar’s then-CEO Jim Owens denied afterward that he had promised the president he wouldn’t lay off workers.)
Again, the political payoff never came. Months earlier, John McCain had won the surrounding county, Tazewell, with 52 percent of the vote, but Obama made a respectable showing at 46 percent. The president later took credit for Caterpillar bringing back jobs from Japan, but the company kept shedding workers and racking up losses as the world economy sputtered. And in the elections to come, Democrats actually lost ground: In 2012, Romney won Tazewell County with nearly 58 percent of the vote; Trump carried it in 2016 with 61 percent.
As Obama pushed the stimulus, along with a massive bailout of the auto industry, as the best way to getting the U.S. economy going again, Republicans trashed his activism. Richard Shelby, then the top Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, said Obama’s policies would lead to “financial disaster.” The Republican National Committee passed a resolution declaring that Obama and congressional Democrats had put the country on the road to socialism. Romney, infamously, said it would be better to “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”
Today, most Republicans have either welcomed Trump’s actions or stayed silent, reluctant to criticize a president from their own party — especially when his moves are proving popular. It’s fallen to Democrats, in a tacit alliance with lonely conservative voices like The Wall Street Journal editorial page and former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, to rip the president-elect’s interventions as “crony capitalism.”
Former Obama aides scoff at the comparisons to their old boss, pointing out that Trump seems to be lurching from tweet to tweet without a coherent plan.
“President Obama was in office when these happened and had already begun to lay out a comprehensive economic strategy, including a very specific economic recovery package that was working its way through Congress at the time,” said Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s former communications director.
“The Carrier episode is definitely different in that it is not about illustrating a national policy,” said Austan Goolsbee, a former White House economic adviser. “Indeed, doing Carrier on a national basis would raise a bunch of serious problems.”
Bill Burton, a former deputy White House press secretary, said he understood the appeal of Trump’s deal-by-deal approach. “For any newly elected president, the obvious place to start is looking at some individual companies who have individual problems and making individual efforts to help them,” he said.
But once Trump actually takes office and becomes responsible for the entire economy, Burton said, it becomes “less practical to fight company by company to make meaningful impact.”
Trump and Obama have vastly different views of globalization, other Democrats noted: One looks for ways to mitigate the downsides of trade; the other aims to roll it back.
“One of the problems with Trump is he has a very nostalgic vision for a time that’s not coming back. Obama’s more realistic than that,” said Jared Bernstein, former chief economist for Vice President Joe Biden.
But none of the former Obama aides denied the political wisdom of Trump’s copycat strategy, even as they questioned his intentions and ability to execute.
“You can bet behind the scenes that [Treasury pick Steven] Mnuchin and the whole Trump team are putting together what is going to be a spectacularly right-wing approach to the economy,” Burton said.
“Anytime a president gets caught saving jobs, it’s a great day for that president,” added Bernstein. “Whether it’s smart economic policy is a different question.”