President-elect Joe Biden is likely to face substantial pressure from Democrats and Republicans alike to continue the tough line on China, particularly when it comes to trade issues — including retaining or possibly increasing the Trump-era tariffs on many Chinese imports. In a New York Times interview on Wednesday, Biden said he would “not make any immediate moves” to do away with Trump’s tariffs on many Chinese exports to the United States.
But what does the general public think about trade with China? In theory, Americans might support an aggressive approach to Chinese trade. After all, many Americans believe Chinese imports and automation have devastated U.S. industrial centers, driving unemployment and wage inequality up in the affected regions. Moreover, an August 2019 Pew Research poll suggested 60 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of China, up from 47 percent in 2018.
However, our research suggests that Americans aren’t fond of presidential threats to sanction trading partners — or policies that follow through on those threats. This is true even when China is the target of the tariffs.
How we did our research
We conducted two survey experiments via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform during January and April 2019, asking 1,415 respondents to read a hypothetical newspaper article about the U.S. trade deficit with another country. Some respondents were told that the president had threatened to impose tariffs on that other country, but subsequently decided to maintain the status quo. Another set of respondents read that the president threatened, and later imposed, new tariffs. We randomized whether the trade deficit was with China, Canada or an unspecified country.
We discovered that tariff threats were broadly unpopular within our survey sample. Specifically, respondents reduced their approval of the president by 12 percentage points when informed that the president issued a threat to impose tariffs, relative to the baseline condition in which the president made no tariff threat.
We also found that the president became more popular if he declined to carry out the tariff threat. When respondents were informed that the president decided not to implement the threatened tariffs, the president received around a 3-percentage point approval bump. This weighs against existing research showing that Americans value consistency between a president’s words and deeds.
Americans are wary of the consumer costs of tariffs
While our sample wasn’t recruited to be representative of the U.S. population, other, more representative, polls have also shown renewed support for free trade in the wake of the U.S.-China trade war. For example, an October 2019 poll by the Chicago Council found that a record number of Americans believe free trade is good for the U.S. economy. This poll found little evidence of partisanship in these views, with 89 percent of Democrats and 87 percent of Republicans voicing support for free trade.
Responses to an open-ended question from our surveys suggest that tariffs — and the current trade war with China, in particular — may be unpopular because Americans are attuned to the consumer costs of such policies. For example, one survey respondent opposed new tariffs because “the taxes trickle down to the consumer who is barely making ends meet as it is.” The economic contraction driven by the coronavirus outbreak, which has disproportionately affected working-class communities, may further exacerbate these concerns.
In many cases, the consumer costs of Trump’s tariffs were quite substantial. For instance, Trump targeted imported washing machines and dryers from Asia with his initial batch of tariffs in 2018. These policies caused the price of a washing machine in the United States to increase by $86 and the price of a dryer to increase by $92, on average. Because we fielded our study in the midst of an escalating trade conflict between the United States and China, our respondents may have already begun to suffer from the costs of increased tariffs on imported Chinese goods when they took the survey.
Implications for Biden
Given that Americans have become increasingly aware that tariffs add to the cost of household goods, support for new trade sanctions against China may lack broad political support. More than two-thirds of Americans say that economic ties with China are in bad shape — and more than half favor building a stronger economic relationship with China as opposed to getting tougher with Beijing on economic issues.
Therefore, despite earlier promises to remain tough on Chinese trade, Biden may not face much public opposition against rolling back Trump’s tariffs on China and other major U.S. trade partners like the European Union — especially if the Biden administration simultaneously continues technology export restrictions on firms like Huawei or stakes out firmer policies on human rights issues in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, which Americans also broadly favor. The lack of public backlash to lifting tariffs would be consistent with our findings and other research showing that citizens are more concerned with the substance of leaders’ policies than discrepancies between their rhetoric and actions.
One shared takeaway from our work and various public polls is that free trade may be far more popular than many politicians in Washington seem to believe. At least in part, that’s because voters understand that trade benefits U.S. innovation and economic growth while lowering the prices that they pay for various products. Additionally, Americans may desire increased economic certainty and stability, and more predictable trade policy can contribute to these ends. On the whole, the strong reservoir of support for an open economy suggests that Americans may be ready for trade policy that doesn’t harm their personal bottom lines.
Don Casler is a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University, where he studies topics at the intersection of international security and international political economy. His scholarship is forthcoming in World Politics. Find him on Twitter @Don_Casler.
Richard Clark is a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University, specializing in international political economy and international organizations. His scholarship is forthcoming in the American Journal of Political Science and International Organization. Find him on Twitter @Ricky__Clark.