Biden, Trump battle over China tariffs

The battle between President Biden and former President Trump over who will be toughest on China and fight hardest for U.S. manufacturing is escalating as they seek to appeal to American workers in key swing states ahead of November’s election.

The Biden administration announced Tuesday that it plans to raise tariffs against China across several “strategic sectors,” including steel and aluminum, semiconductors, electric vehicles (EVs), batteries, critical minerals, solar cells, ship-to-shore cranes and medical products.

EVs made in China will face the biggest uptick, with the administration quadrupling tariffs from 25 percent to 100 percent, while tariffs on Chinese semiconductors and solar cells will jump from 25 percent to 50 percent.

Tariffs on steel and aluminum, EV and non-EV batteries and battery parts, will rise from between zero and 7.5 percent to 25 percent.

The Biden administration has argued that the more aggressive tariffs are necessary to prevent excess Chinese goods from “flooding global markets with exports that are underpriced due to unfair practices.”

“We know China’s unfair practices have harmed communities in Michigan and Pennsylvania and around the country that are now having the opportunity to come back due to … President Biden’s investment agenda,” National Economic Council director Lael Brainard said on a call with reporters Monday.

“The president’s actions ensure that American businesses and workers have the opportunity to compete on a level playing field in industries that are vital to our future such as clean energy and semiconductors,” she added.

Biden is taking aggressive steps to fend off foreign competition as he faces frequent barbs from Trump, who has warned of an auto industry “blood bath” if the president is reelected.

The former president, who levied tariffs against China that were widely considered the opening salvo in a trade war with Beijing, has argued that he will be even tougher on China if he wins in November.

Trump has vowed to enact a 60 percent tariff on all Chinese products, as well as a 100 percent tariff on cars made outside the U.S. and a 10 percent tariff on all foreign products across the board.

At a rally in New Jersey over the weekend, Trump questioned why Biden didn’t impose the heightened tariffs earlier and suggested that autoworkers would lose their jobs in a second Biden term.

“He says he’s going to put a 100 percent tariff on all Chinese electric vehicles,” Trump said Saturday. “Isn’t that nice? He should have done this four years ago.”

“If I’m not elected, those [foreign] plants are going to close up every automobile job in America,” he later added. “You won’t be making one automobile in the United States of America.”

Biden took aim at the former president’s track record on China and his plans for an across-the-board tariff in remarks in the Rose Garden on Tuesday.

“My predecessor promised to increase American exports and boost manufacturing. But he did neither. He failed,” Biden said. “He signed a trade deal with China. … Instead, China imports from America barely budged.”

“And now Trump and MAGA Republicans want an across-the-board tariff on all imports from all countries if reelected,” he added. “Well, that would drive up costs for families on an average of $1,500 per year each year. He simply doesn’t get it.”

The push from both Biden and Trump to appear tough on China comes as a new consensus, both in Washington and among Americans, appears to be coalescing, said Maxwell Shulman, a research analyst at Beacon Policy Advisors.

“Since the Reagan era, there had been until recently a neoliberal consensus on promoting free trade and decreasing tariffs and government restrictions and getting out of the way of industrial policy,” Shulman told The Hill.

“But the rise of populism in the last couple of years in both parties has significantly reworked that sort of calculus in the back of voters’ minds,” he continued.

“They’re no longer thinking about how the free market would lead to necessarily best outcomes for people all the time,” Shulman said. “They’re thinking about how can the government protect jobs from going overseas and protect people from globalization.”

Coupled with rising tensions between Washington and Beijing, politicians are increasingly incentivized to look tough on China.

“Everything’s sort of coming together to lead to ‘tough on China’ tariff policies in 2024,” Shulman added.

Biden’s new tariffs also appear to be geared toward workers in several key swing states known for manufacturing and steelmaking, such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, that will likely be central in the president’s reelection efforts.

Trump is currently leading Biden by 4 points in Michigan, 1.7 points in Pennsylvania and 0.8 points in Wisconsin, according to The Hill/Decision Desk HQ’s polling averages.

The president’s focus on workers and industry was underscored by remarks from Roxanne Brown, the international vice president at large for the United Steelworkers union, and Century Aluminum Company CEO Jesse Gary in the Rose Garden on Tuesday.

While Biden has often described himself as the “most pro-union president in American history,” Trump has “significant pockets of support” among building and construction trades, the Teamsters union and manufacturing unions, noted Marick Masters, a business professor at Wayne State University.

Even within the United Autoworkers (UAW) union, which endorsed the president, Biden may struggle to find a foothold, as some workers are “skeptical of the leftist politics” of Democrats and others are vocal critics of Biden’s policies on the war in Gaza, Masters said.

The new tariffs may do little on this front, as they will likely be viewed as a political move by the administration, he added.

“I think it’s going to be perceived as what it is, which is really a political move that may not be as heartfelt as people would like it to be, because of the timing of it,” Masters told The Hill.

Trump, on the other hand, has tapped into fears among autoworkers about Biden’s policies encouraging electrification. The issue was at the center of the UAW’s decision to delay its endorsement of Biden until January.

However, Shulman emphasized that efforts to promote domestic industry are generally supported by both the auto industry and autoworkers.

“If there’s a rare opportunity where you can take an action that both labor and the industry can get behind, especially for such a crucial sector of the economy, then it makes all the sense in the world politically to hike up some trade barriers in front of the election to protect jobs at home,” he said.

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