WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s opening work day offered a look at his tricky balancing act between American businesses and the working-class voters who propelled his march to the White House.
The name of the game, Trump tweeted before dawn: “Jobs.” He then met with American business executives to both charm and threaten them into doing business in the U.S. The real estate titan later served notice he was pulling the U.S. out of participating in a proposed Pacific trade pact and promised to renegotiate a 23-year-old agreement with Canada and Mexico — both of which, Trump has said, are bad for jobs. Trump also bore down on the one sector of the American economy he says has too many jobs: The federal government, whose hiring and wages he froze with the stroke of an executive order pen.
Before the day was out, Trump had gathered union leaders — from those representing sheet metal workers to carpenters — to listen to their concerns and hear their applause over his assault on what he called “ridiculous” trade deals. It’s all part of an audacious plan to grow the economy by 4 percent a year while shrinking the trade gap and creating 25 million jobs over the next decade — despite obstacles that have vexed presidents of both parties for decades.
“We’re going to put a lot of people back to work; we’re going to use common sense,” Trump insisted Monday. At one point, he called reporters back into his meeting with labor leaders to hear Doug McCarron of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters praise Trump’s inaugural address. The speech “hit home for the people who have been hurting,” said McCarron, who had endorsed Hillary Clinton in the presidential race.
Trump’s approach tracks with exit polls that showed two-thirds of white voters without a college degree chose him over Clinton. These voters comprised nearly half of all of Trump’s voters, according to the survey conducted for The Associated Press and television networks by Edison Research.
In an AP-NORC poll last January, 82 percent of non-college educated white voters called reducing unemployment a very or extremely important issue for the next president, putting it among their top economic issues.
There was ample evidence, too, that those voters were not recovering economically from the recession with the rest of the nation. In an April 2016 AP-NORC poll, 7 in 10 non-college whites said their pay had stayed the same or lost ground in previous years.
Trump seemed well-aware of his constituency — promising during the campaign that bringing American jobs back was a top priority for him, too.
After the election, he boasted several times of persuading the heads of American companies to cancel plans to move. In one notable case, Trump took credit in December for keeping what he said were 1,100 jobs at the Carrier Corp. factory in Indianapolis from being outsourced to Mexico. The number was closer to 800. United Steelworkers Local 1999 President Chuck Jones accused the president-elect of exaggerating, and a Twitter war erupted. Trump fumed that Jones had done “a terrible job representing American workers.”
Trump spent Monday trying to make the case that he can do better. But on workplace issues, it remains unclear how strong a friend Trump is to labor and the working class Americans who powered his victory.
Some of the new president’s actions on Monday were symbolic: The U.S.’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example, was already dead due to withering enthusiasm among Republicans, Democrats and labor unions, among others. Business leaders have long been under pressure to operate inside the nation’s borders. And he wouldn’t say when he’d start renegotiating NAFTA, the 1994 free trade agreement blamed by many for inspiring American businesses to send good-paying jobs to less expensive shores.
It was enough to win some plaudits from the Twittersphere — AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called the move on TPP “an important first step toward a trade policy that works for working people,” but did not mention Trump’s name in the statement.
In fact, other parts of Trump’s agenda conflict with labor’s wish list, a conflict personified by his choice to lead the department charged with enforcing workplace rules.
Fast food executive Andrew Puzder, CEO of the parent company of Hardees, Carl’s Jr., and other chains, has said that large increases in the minimum wage — one of labor’s top priorities — would lead to job losses. He wrote in a May 2016 op-ed that President Barack Obama’s overtime rule would be “another barrier to the middle class rather than a springboard” for workers.
A pair of pro-labor interest groups, Jobs for Justice and the Economic Policy Institute, have set up a web site and Twitter hashtag devoted to Puzder’s nomination called, “#antilaborsecretary.”
And 22 Senate Democrats are calling for Puzder’s confirmation hearing Feb. 2 to include current and former workers who have complained of poor or illegal treatment at his restaurants.
The workers’ stories, the senators wrote, raise concerns about Puzder’s “commitment to enforcing federal labor laws — the secretary of labor’s chief responsibility.”
For his part, Puzder tweeted Jan. 16: “I am looking forward to my hearing.”
Associated Press Writer Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report.
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