President-electTrump’s message that he intends to get tough on trade and companies that ship American jobs overseas seems to be getting through to two constituencies: Democrats and the business community.

Employers are following in the footsteps of Carrier, the HVAC company that announced it wouldn’t be moving 1,000 Indiana jobs to Mexico after all after the president-elect and Vice President-elect Mike Pence reached out with some carrots and sticks to entice them.

Trump is also playing tough with companies doing business with the federal government, demanding they lower their prices even before he takes office. “I’ve heard his message loud and clear about reducing the cost of the F-35,” Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson said in a statement. “I gave him my personal commitment to drive the cost down aggressively.”

Ford has now twice altered decisions to move production overseas since Trump was elected and began making public demands. The automaker is a representative experience: it is debatable how many jobs were saved or how big of a role Trump played in their moves to invest in America.

But the PR benefit of staying within the good graces of Trump the presidential Twitter user looks like it could have at least a marginal impact, to say nothing of the 35 percent tariffs the president-elect has threatened or the border-adjusted taxes congressional Republicans are contemplating.

In addition to his personal lobbying of companies to hire or at least not lay off American workers, Trump has doubled down on his hardline trade talk from the campaign. The latest member of his team to reflect his economic nationalism is Robert Lighthizer, his nominee for U.S. special trade representative.

Lighthizer, like secretary of commerce nominee Wilbur Ross and incoming trade adviser Peter Navarro, shares Trump’s beliefs that we have negotiated a lot of bad trade deals and that the government needs to do more for the American worker.

“I am fully committed to President-elect Trump’s mission to level the playing field for American workers and forge better trade policies which will benefit all Americans,” Lighthizer said. In a column last year, Lightizer argued trade protectionism was conservative.

Congressional Democrats may not care if it is conservative, but some of them are willing to align themselves with Trump on trade.

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Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., has a Twitter feed filled with standard Democratic talking points about Russian hacking and Trump failing to unite the country by appointing Stephen Bannon to his White House staff. But on the trade representative appointment, he sang a different tune.

“Bob Lighthizer is a knowledgeable trade lawyer and a skilled negotiator. He has rejected the rigid ideological mantra of ‘free trade’ that most Republican leaders have blindly embraced, regardless of the consequences for the American middle class,” Neal said in a statement. “His nomination could signal a welcome move in a new direction for the Republican Party, if he is able to overcome the resistance he is likely to face within his party.”

“Trump said he wants to fight for trade deals that put American workers first, and so do we,” Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore, told reporters. “We are going to give very strong support for rewriting NAFTA. The momentum for a new direction is very, very clear and growing.”

DeFazio is one of the most liberal Democrats in Congress. Standing alongside labor leaders from the AFL-CIO, Democrats declared the Trans-Pacific Partnership — negotiated by a president of their party and partly killed by the incoming Republican — dead, without sounding like they were in mourning.

The important holdouts may be in Trump’s own party. Republicans still control both houses of Congress and even though rank-and-file GOP voters are souring on free trade, according to polls, many on Capitol Hill are dismayed by their new leader’s embrace of tariffs and Twitter wars with CEOS following the bottom line.

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But Republicans will want to win in places Trump carried, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Some of those are places the GOP hasn’t carried at the presidential level since Ronald Reagan — Lighthizer’s boss the last time he was the U.S. trade representative’s office. They can read the tea leaves as well as businesses too.

Trump is giving Republicans and jittery companies some sweetener too. He is pledging to support tax cuts and deregulation that will make it easier for them to do business here, especially lowering the corporate tax rate.

Even if Trump can’t alter the economic trajectory of the Rust Belt, he might be able to generate enough feel-good headlines and provide tangible benefits to enough workers that it still yields a political benefit.

Coalitions of Democrats and Republicans have been trying to stop trade agreements like NAFTA and GATT since the 1990s. They just never had a president on their side before. Now they do.

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“I’m sure there will be bipartisan support for weakening it.”

01/04/17 12:01 AM

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