President Trump left official Washington flabbergasted with his latest press conference, a rambling sparring match with reporters that was the political equivalent of a professional wrestling smackdown.
Trump mostly fulminated on leaks that have undermined his Cabinet nominees and other aides. But Trump made a passing reference to one important economic issue—jobs—while taking credit for jawboning a handful of companies to invest more in the United States.
Trump praised five companies by name—Ford (F), General Motors (GM), Fiat Chrysler (FCAU), Intel (INTC) and Walmart (WMT)—for committing to hire more Americans. “If I didn’t get elected, believe, me, they would have left and these things I’m announcing never would have come here.”
There’s some debate about that. The automakers, to some extent, repackaged prior news to make it seem like they were making new investments in US plants that probably would have happened anyway. Intel and Walmart may or may not have ramped up US hiring without Trump.
Trump’s focus on jobs
But let’s give Trump credit for this: He has made jobs the focal point of his economic plan and expressed an urgent need to create more of them. Just about all politicians do this, and Trump may turn out to be more talk than action. Still, it is certainly something new to see a president calling out companies by name and asking their CEOs what they plan to do to create more jobs.
The list of accomplishments Trump reeled off during his press conference was overstated, but he highlighted one common sense thing that will play well in the heartland. When deciding to approve the construction of two oil pipelines President Obama had blocked, Trump decided to stipulate that they needed to be built with steel made in America. “They build a pipeline in this country,” Trump said, “and we use the powers of government to make that pipeline happen, we want them to use American steel.” Hard to argue with that.
There are many risks to Trump’s economic plan and his focus on jobs. The first is that Trump’s penchant for controversy creates so much turmoil that it undermines his support in Congress—even among his fellow Republicans—and wrecks his ability to get anything done. Given that some of Trump’s controversies are self-inflicted—criticizing judges, bashing Nordstrom (JWN) for phasing out his daughter’s line of products—Trump could torpedo his own plan. No leaks required.
Another big risk is that Trump has identified the wrong solutions, even if he accurately perceives the problem. There’s a lot of data showing a decline in certain middle-class jobs, and eroding living standards along with that. But punishing trade partners and keeping out immigrants, as Trump proposes, could do more harm than good. Better to focus on new ways to give more workers the skills needed for the jobs of the future.
Still, Trump has now met with dozens of CEOs and apparently asked or told all of them to find ways to hire more US workers. CEOs undoubtedly think twice these days about closing American facilities and opening ones abroad. They might just be waiting Trump out, betting that his attention span will fade and he’ll grow tired of harping on jobs. But the rule regarding Trump is, don’t underestimate him. Or lose sight of the method amid the madness.
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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.