President Donald Trump served notice though his State of the Union address Tuesday night that his new trade deals are going to be a major part of his case for reelection.
Calling his economic record the “Great American Comeback” that had produced a “blue-collar boom,” he said the nation was “moving forward at a pace that was unimaginable just a short time ago, and we are never, ever going back.”
He made no mention of his impeachment in December by the Democratic-controlled House; the Republican-controlled Senate is expected to vote to acquit him Wednesday afternoon.
Trump didn’t back away from his use of tariffs as a negotiating tool, even though they have resulted in retaliation that has disrupted major agricultural commodity markets.
Citing the new “phase one” trade agreement with China, he declared that he had fulfilled a campaign promise to “impose tariffs to confront China's massive theft of American jobs. Our strategy worked.”
It’s not clear yet how much impact the agreement with China will have on the economy. His chief economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, acknowledged earlier Tuesday that the coronavirus outbreak will likely delay the surge in purchases of U.S. agricultural commodities to which China committed in the agreement.
But Trump described the trade pact as “groundbreaking” and said it “will defend our workers, protect our intellectual property, bring billions of dollars into our treasury, and open vast new markets for products made and grown right here in the U.S.A.”
He asserted that the United States now has “perhaps the best relationship we have ever had with China, including with President Xi.”
Trump also boasted about the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement that makes revisions to the North American Free Trade Agreement, a favorite target of his in the 2016 campaign.
The implementing bill passed overwhelmingly after Trump’s top trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, negotiated with House Democrats and Mexico on provisions to toughen enforcement of labor and environmental standards. Canada is expected to approve its implementing bill in coming months.
“One of the single biggest promises I made to the American people was to replace the disastrous NAFTA trade deal,” he said. "In fact, unfair trade is perhaps the single biggest reason that I decided to run for President."
He went on, “Many politicians came and went, pledging to change or replace NAFTA … and then absolutely nothing happened. But unlike so many who came before me, I keep my promises.”
He said it was the first major trade deal to win support from labor unions.
The agreement includes revisions that would have been part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership had not Trump withdrawn the United States from that pact, but the USMCA also includes new provisions to address barriers to U.S. dairy products and wheat in Canada.
Ticking off a list of economic accomplishments, including the lowest unemployment rate in half a century, he said that participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program had fallen by 7 million, a reduction that comes before the administration implements a series of new regulations designed to tighten work requirements and income eligibility limits in many states.
According to USDA data, SNAP participation fell from 44.2 million in fiscal 2016 and 42.2 million in fiscal 2017 to 35.7 million in fiscal 2019.
Trump made only a passing reference to infrastructure, which has long been a major priority for farm groups and agribusiness. He called on lawmakers to support a Senate surface transportation bill and said he was “committed to ensuring that every citizen can have access to high-speed internet, including rural America.”
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He went on at length about sanctuary cities, illegal immigration and his administration's efforts to combat it, calling attention to a guest in the House gallery who was the brother of a man allegedly killed by someone in the country illegally.
He said his administration was working on legislation "to replace our outdated and randomized immigration system with one based on merit, welcoming those who follow the rules, contribute to our economy, support themselves financially, and uphold our values." But Trump didn't mention agricultural labor issues or his administration's proposal to overhaul the H-2A visa program.
Despite the upbeat economic message, Trump's third state of the union address also will be remembered for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's role. Trump didn't shake her hand before the speech, and in full view of the camera she ripped the text in half as he completed the address.
Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, said that Trump's "rosy" description of the economy "is not just inaccurate, it’s insensitive to the millions of rural Americans who are struggling every day just to scrape by."
"Despite trade assistance payments, many farmers haven’t been able to withstand the financial pressures: nearly 600 farmers filed for Chapter 12 bankruptcy last year, a shocking 20 percent spike, while thousands more decided to leave the business entirely," Johnson said.
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