The Bully Pulpit and U.S. Economic Policy

Lessons for Trump From the Nixon Era

U.S. President Donald Trump wearing a cowboy hat during a "Made in America" event at the White House, July 2017. Carlos Barria / REUTERS

U.S. President Donald Trump would probably have delighted in the straight-talking Texan swagger of John Connally, President Richard Nixon’s second secretary of the Treasury. Connally’s policies foreshadowed a number of Trump’s favored positions. He presided over the imposition of an import surcharge in 1971, which he argued would show the administration’s support for struggling workers in the U.S. auto industry. He hammered U.S. allies for not spending enough on their own defense, much as Trump did in Brussels earlier this year. And his rhetorically belligerent style on the international stage was nothing if not Trumpian. His famous line “The dollar is our currency, but it’s your problem” seems straight out of Trump’s “America first” playbook.

Indeed, Trump has sketched a remarkably similar vision of economic nationalism. His calls for more aggressive trade protections, fairer exchange-rate policies, and greater defense burden sharing echo those of Connally’s tenure. The Trump administration has also adopted Connally’s bombastic approach to international negotiations. In August, for instance, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said that the North American Free Trade Agreement had “fundamentally failed many, many Americans.” Trump doubled down on that remark, tweeting later in the month that NAFTA was the “worst trade deal ever made.” The president has also threatened to withdraw the United States from its free trade agreement with South Korea, just as that country, a U.S. ally, descends deeper into crisis with its neighbor to the north.

The trouble is that this aggressive strategy didn’t work. Connally’s sharp-elbowed approach impressed Nixon, but it failed to advance U.S. economic interests abroad. As the Trump administration begins pursuing its economic agenda in earnest, it is worth comparing Connally’s record with that of George Shultz, his successor as Treasury secretary. Shultz’s strategy—selective, discreet engagement with key allies and an overarching vision of a liberalized financial system built around the United States—served the country better. U.S.

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