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October 18, 2019

7/25/2019 7:24:00 AM
WMC survey offers solace for Trump's trade policies
Business leaders offer long-term support for tariffs

Richard Moore
Investigative Reporter

Most Wisconsin business leaders support President Donald Trump's use of tariffs as he aggressively tries to negotiate a trade deal with China, despite short-term pain, a new survey of Wisconsin business leaders shows.

The semi-annual economic survey conducted by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) fortifies the message Trump delivered in a Wisconsin speech on July 12 - that his tough trade policies, including tariffs, are bringing jobs, and particularly manufacturing jobs, back to the U.S. and to Wisconsin.

Not that Trump's tariffs against China aren't hurting in the short run, the survey found. It's just that business leaders think the tariffs might be worth it in the long run.

While 47 percent of the 204 survey respondents said the tariffs are having a negative effect on their business, 67 percent said they either "strongly" or "somewhat" supported tariffs imposed on China, WMC stated.

WMC president and CEO Kurt Bauer said the state's business leaders demand fairness in trade relations with other nations.

"The U.S. opens its markets to foreign companies with the expectation of reciprocal treatment, which doesn't always occur, especially when it comes to China," Bauer said. "The general sentiment expressed in this survey is that something drastic needs to be done to force a change."

Bauer said he was "somewhat" surprised by the survey responses, but said state business leaders trust the president on economic issues.

According to the survey, WMC stated, Trump's approval rating is 80 percent, unchanged from six months ago. The same percentage also say the U.S. is headed in the right direction.

Despite the negative impact of the tariffs, the survey also showed general economic optimism, albeit a little less than six months ago. Fifty percent said they would add staff during the second half of 2019, down from 55 percent in December, and 77 percent rated the U.S. economy as either "strong" or "very strong," down from 81 percent, the survey stated.

Labor availability and health care costs remain the business community's biggest concerns, according to the survey.

Eighty-one percent of respondents said they are having trouble finding employees, the survey stated, up from 74 percent in December and 76 percent a year ago. And when asked "what is the one thing state government could do to help your business," 33 percent answered "make health care more affordable," followed by "reduce taxes" (21.5 percent) and "reduce/reform regulations" (19 percent).

According to the survey, the number of business leaders (78 percent) rating the Wisconsin economy as either "strong" or "very strong" was unchanged from December, while 58 percent said the Wisconsin economy would see "moderate growth" in the next six months, which was unchanged from December.

"However, 59 percent of respondents said Wisconsin was headed in the wrong direction," the survey stated. "In December, 68 percent said the state was headed in the right direction."

WMC surmised that the sharp reversal in attitude "may be a reaction to Gov. Tony Evers's proposed state budget released in February."

"In fact, 78 percent either strongly (55 percent) or somewhat (22.5 percent) disapproved of the job Gov. Evers is doing," WMC stated. "This survey is the first time business leaders have been asked to rate Evers's performance as governor."

Trump's trade message

In his speech at Derco Aerospace in Milwaukee, Trump hammered away at the need for his tough stance against China and Mexico and others that he says aren't playing fair in the trade business.

"For years, politicians let China take the crown jewels out of our country," Trump told the gathered crowd. "My administration has taken the toughest-ever stance to stop these incredible abuses."

Trump said he also promised to replace NAFTA, which he called a disaster.

"Since NAFTA's adoption, the United States was losing jobs and losing plants like nobody has ever lost before," he said. "Almost one in five auto jobs were lost during NAFTA, and I think that's a wrong number; I think it's worse than that. But now, we're demanding that you get - as people working here, and as companies, and as great, great strength - I want you to have strength, but I want you to have a level playing field. Because when you have a level playing field, nobody can beat you. You didn't have a level playing field. You had a playing field that was like this, and you had to go uphill."

Trump said he was replacing NAFTA with a new U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement.

"The US-Mexico-Canada agreement (USMCA) will be the most modern, cutting-edge trade agreement in history, with the strongest protections for the American worker ever put in any trade agreement," he said. "And that was the single-most important thing to me."

Most important, Trump said, the agreement will close what he called the biggest loopholes that caused the mass exodus of manufacturing jobs from the U.S.

"By ratifying the USMCA, Mexico has now committed to be the toughest and have the toughest labor provisions, the highest environmental standards, and the most comprehensive enforcement provisions ever implemented in a trade agreement - ever," he said.

For years, Trump said, labor unions and lawmakers urged past administrations to secure those types of trade provisions.

"They did absolutely nothing," he said. "No administration did anything except lose jobs. We were laughed at by the rest of the world. We were patsies."

Trump says he doesn't blame China and other countries.

"I blame our past leaders," he said. "I blame the people and administrations that allowed this to happen."

It's not China's fault we allowed it to happen, Trump said: "It's not China's fault that we were stupid."

Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming "Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story" and can be reached at

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