Trade was a defining issue for candidate Donald Trump in 2016, when he lambasted American NAFTA negotiators for "the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere" and an unconscionable strike against U.S. manufacturing jobs. As president he upended the Trans-Pacific Partnership for similar reasons. His biggest data point, wielded like a cudgel: America's $500 billion annual trade deficit.
But the numbers are going against Trump so far: the U.S. trade deficit was $44 billion in August, for example, above the monthly average of $42 billion in 2016, Barack Obama's last full year in office. As you see in the chart below, the 2017 monthly average of $45.6 billion is far worse than any year of Obama's presidency apart from 2011, when the deficit was $45.7 billion.
Why it matters: Trump may come to regret using the trade deficit as an economic scorecard, because its overall size is driven by forces over which the U.S. can exercise only limited influence, like foreign central bank actions or trade policies.
The tale of steel: The recent struggles of the American steel and aluminum industries exemplify the shortcomings of Trump Administration trade policy. In April, Trump announced an investigation into the global steel market, to learn whether foreign competition was damaging U.S. national security by limiting American steel aluminum manufacturing capacity.
Why it may be too late: Jared Bernstein, former chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden, tells Axios that even if Trump gets aggressive with new tariffs, he will produce few benefits for the displaced workers who voted for him. That's because jobs lost to events like China's 2001 accession to the WTO are already gone, and new tariffs won't bring them back.
Be smart: The Democratic Party are likely to lead the charge in this direction. Few elected GOP officials have rallied to Trump's anti-trade platform, and Dems, humiliated by their performance in the rust belt last year, are likely to try to capture these voters with a pitch distant from the free-trade status quo.