Joe Biden may keep some Trump policies on trade

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Joseph R. Biden is sending strong signals that he won’t immediately try to tear down all of President Trump’s moves on trade, an area where Mr. Trump upended traditional party alliances and attitudes.

Mr. Biden and his team say the presumptive president-elect wants to focus first on investments at home before leaping into potential trade deals. He plans to continue, at least in part, the Trump administration’s “Buy American” policies that drove Mr. Trump’s trade agenda.

Jake Sullivan, who Mr. Biden named as the incoming national security adviser, said a “fundamental touchstone” of international economic policy will be creating jobs and raising wages at home.

“Where trade and other international economic policies can help contribute to that, we should double down on them,” Mr. Sullivan said at an event hosted by The Wall Street Journal. “Where, in fact, the strategy or the priority is disconnected from that basic touchstone, then we should revise and reform it.”

Mr. Biden recently said he wouldn’t automatically roll back the 25% tariffs Mr. Trump placed on about half of Chinese exports or move to alter the terms of a “Phase 1” trade agreement that requires China to buy an additional $200 billion worth of U.S. goods and services over 2020 and 2021.

“I want to make sure we’re going to fight like hell by investing in America first,” he told The New York Times.

To boost domestic production, Mr. Biden plans to impose a 10% tax on certain companies that move production overseas and provide a 10% tax credit for companies that bring jobs back to the U.S.

He also wants to expand on Mr. Trump’s “Buy American” rules, saying it’s too easy for products to be classified as U.S.-made and for federal agencies to waive those rules when they procure goods.

There’s danger in that pursuit, said Bryan Riley, director of the free-trade initiative at the National Taxpayers Union.

“I think we’re much better off on focusing on those things which we are best at and trading those with other countries around the world,” Mr. Riley said. “When we enact ‘buy American’ policies, other countries respond by enacting ‘don’t buy American’ policies and restricting U.S. exports of goods and services.”

Mr. Biden gave credit to Mr. Trump for revising the North American Free Trade Agreement, a deal Mr. Biden supported as a senator, and blamed congressional Republicans for not going along with an effort by the Obama administration to update the deal.

The updated United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) took effect July 1. Among other provisions, it calls for automakers to use a higher share of materials made in the continent.

But White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said he’s skeptical that the Biden administration will be able to pull off a true repeat or continuation of Mr. Trump’s “America First” approach to trade.

“The Trump administration really was sui generis — it was a black swan event in terms of economic nationalism, standing up for the American blue-collar worker. I don’t see that in this administration,” Mr. Navarro said on Fox Business Network. “Not going to be America first. I think we can probably agree with that.”

Chad Brown, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said Mr. Biden should simply strive to make trade boring again amid the frequent tit-for-tat tariff battles with China and other countries over the last four years.

“Trade just became far too exciting relative to its actual economic importance,” Mr. Brown said. “It’s better taken care of when it’s not as exciting. And it needs, I guess, to be a lot more truthful.”

Shortly after the USMCA went into effect, Mr. Trump announced he was reimposing new levies on Canadian aluminum, prompting Canada to fire back with retaliatory tariffs on U.S. goods.

Mr. Biden has had to fend off characterizations from Mr. Trump and others that he would be too weak on Beijing in areas such as trade abuse and would pave the way for China to more easily ascend to be the world’s preeminent superpower.

Mr. Biden has emphasized that combating China’s rise is going to take a multilateral approach among the U.S. and its allies, rather than the unilateral pursuits Mr. Trump has championed.

“He is not going to poke our allies in the eye. He is going to once again be a leader on the world stage,” said Stef Feldman, the Biden campaign’s policy director. “And much of his foreign policy will follow under that framework and allow him to chart a path forward.”

Mr. Brown said elements of the Phase 1 trade deal with China are worth re-examining and that it might be worthwhile to reset expectations.

“I think there has to be a reorientation of the U.S.-China trade relationship overall,” he said. “The purchase commitments actually kind of create the wrong incentives to try to encourage more reforms in China — more market-oriented behavior.”

• Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this report.

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