Donald Trump loves to talk about jobs. During the campaign, he promised to create 25 million jobs in the next ten years. His first big move after being elected was to convince a Carrier plant in Indiana to keep jobs in the country. And people still trust him on jobs, substantially more than they trust him in general—even as that Carrier deal falls apart, to the surprise of no one. It's safe to say that he'd rather be talking about jobs than the whole Russia-Comey thing, or even the Senate's new healthcare bill, about which he has been strikingly noncommittal.
But as with so much else, though we know what Trump wants—more jobs coming into the country, fewer leaving—it's not clear how he's going to achieve that. Workforce Development Week, last week's attempt to pivot attention back to jobs-jobs-jobs, felt ad hoc, a cynical attempt to distract from Trump's scandals. It culminated with an executive order that merely unrealistically expands an Obama-era drive to build up apprenticeships. In other words, more talk from a president who loves to talk big and slap his name on other people's projects, without doing much new or substantive himself.
But Trump does have a jobs strategy. It's just not especially revolutionary, despite his rhetoric—which is par for the course.
According to L. Josh Bivens, director of research at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute think tank, outside of crises like the Great Recession, concentrated jobs agendas have been out of political and economic vogue for ages. Experts I spoke to agree that Trump's anti-regulation, anti-tax, anti-globalization, pro-infrastructure, and anti-immigration policies are cumulatively a jobs agenda, of sorts.
Strip regulations, the logic runs, and businesses can grow freely, hiring more people. Stop immigration, more jobs for Americans. Cut tax rates and impose new barriers on foreign goods, or rewrite other elements of trade deals, companies move their factories to America. Build more roads and bridges, you've got a ton of sweet construction jobs.
Not everyone agrees with team Trump's interpretations of these policies as job growers. Even moderately sympathetic conservative economists see them more as potentially double-edged swords that create some jobs but lose others. But at least Trump has a roughly consistent jobs worldview, one that mostly aligns with ordinary Republicanism, save for his hardline views on trade policy, which fly in the face of the GOP's usual free-market economics.
The problem is, it's unclear how all these elements will come together, or if Trump will even follow through on them.
Tax reform, which Dan Mitchell of the libertarian Cato Institute told me is the key to any job growth under Trump, is out of the president's hands. Congress is developing legislation with limited input from a president who has vacillated on the subject. Deregulation has advanced at a fair clip over the past few months, but could soon hit some practical roadblocks. And any hopes for rapid infrastructure plan development and implementation have been all but scuttled.
Trump's dedication to bringing manufacturing back to America by rewriting trade deals and throwing up protectionist walls, is perhaps the most unique part of his jobs agenda, according to Mitchell. Dean Baker, a left-leaning economist at the Center for Economic Policy Research, thinks these moves might actually work, though Mitchell fears protectionism could cause a catastrophic trade war that would kill jobs in the end. But while Trump has signed a few deals and rattled a few swords, Baker notes that he's shied away from most of the obvious levers of protectionism since taking office.
"He doesn't seem prepared to follow through on all his trade promises," said Baker.
None of Trump's ostensibly job-creating policies have been fully enacted yet. Most are barely in embryonic stages. Even when they do go into place, it could take years until we truly feel their effects. "You look at the economy today, and well, the vast majority of that was baked into the cards," said Baker, and little will change from the Obama-era trajectory "barring Trump doing something exceptionally stupid or brilliant."
Watch Desus and Mero laugh at Trump's latest rally:
So far, Trump has cut deals with individual companies, or stolen credit for already-existing plans. Then he's played down the flaws in those deals. He's fabricated random numbers about how great his foreign dealings will be for jobs, and leaned on bogus estimates and mangled translations of facts to claim his environmental policies have yielded or saved jobs already. He's also taken take credit for Obama-era employment trends, embracing labor figures he once knocked as fake now that he's in office.
"You've seen them switch from calling the economy 'carnage,'" said Bivens of Trump's team, "to claiming it's great, even as there has been no discernable change in economic trends."
Slapping his name onto Obama's apprenticeship program last week fits with that trend. Though that's not just a Trump thing. "Other presidents always do this," said Mitchell, "whether it's ribbon-cutting at jobs centers or whatever."
But in an economy that's been growing about 200,000 new jobs a month for years on end, said Brookings Institute economist Gary Burtless, these deals and programs amount to little more than a jobs numbers "rounding error." Meanwhile, Trump has pursued these strong-arm deals with a ferocity that some observers worry could distort American capitalism. And his team has been much more willing to bend the truth in a way that makes one worry about how seriously they take job creation versus job rhetoric.
Baker notes that although he was sometimes able to call out the Obama administration for a funky number or false claim, the carelessness of team Trump is new and unnerving. "Whether due to ignorance or deliberate deception," he said, "they're just throwing numbers out there that as often as not literally don't make any sense."
As much as Trump loves to yammer about jobs, he's had little to say about the quality of the jobs he wants to generate. That's odd, given that many places where his campaign's economic messages resonated especially well have been clear on their desire not just for jobs, but jobs with steady hours, good work conditions, and reasonable pay. Although Trump sometimes talks about manufacturing jobs as if they will all be good and reliable, that's not something you can actually rely upon these days. As for raising the federal minimum wage, a popular idea that candidate Trump sometimes talked about, that doesn't appear to be on the table at all.
Mitchell's willing to give Trump some cover for not making big promises about wages, at least. Outside of raising the minimum wage, which most factory job salaries exceed anyway, it's difficult to influence wages across the economy, he said. But there seems to be more at play than a reticence to talk about an economic unknown. Team Trump, most of the experts I spoke to agreed, has already been pretty anti-union and -worker's rights, and has started to dismantle programs (like the Affordable Care Act) that have improved workers' quality of life and personal security. Trump wants jobs, but it's not clear that he cares too much about what happens to the workers who have those jobs.
Still, even if Trump isn't delivering on promises to make the economy work for people left-behind, he knows what people want to hear. "One thing Trump didn't get enough credit for as a candidate was actually being really disciplined in always talking about jobs," said Bivens. "He gets more than most politicians how insecure and tenuous most Americans feel in their working life." That goes a long way, and Trump knows it.
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