When President-elect Donald Trump successfully demanded that Carrier keep some manufacturing jobs from going to Mexico, he was criticized at first for bullying the heating and cooling giant and for violating the Republican Party’s free-market capitalist ethos.
In the eight weeks since, however, the atmosphere has changed dramatically. Almost daily, in Twitter missives as well as private meetings, Trump continues to hector businesses to make investments in the United States. And he is receiving credit for announcements from some of the world’s biggest corporations — Bayer AG, General Motors and Walmart just this week — that they are keeping or adding U.S. jobs, even if their plans were developed long before his agitations.
Trump is trying to put the bully back into the bully pulpit, modeling his governing style after Theodore Roosevelt, the president whose attacks on industry barons inspired the term.
The Trump strategy is to change the behavior of corporations — not to mention the intelligence community and other creatures of Washington — through force of intimidation. His advisers talk about the president-elect’s provocations, such as threatening a 35 percent tax on imports, not as policy destinations necessarily, but as boundaries designed to frame the discussion and instill fear in corporate boardrooms.
“Trump understands that if you change the culture, the behavior follows,” said former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally and informal adviser. “He wants to create a Trumpian environment so that boards go into a meeting saying, ‘No, we’re not leaving the U.S.’ ”
Trump’s demands on the business community are among the most notable actions of the pre-inaugural period. The list of major companies announcing U.S. jobs in recent weeks has ranged from Hyundai Motor to Amazon, and in each case Trump and his aides have trumpeted their announcements and claimed credit.
It is unclear, however, how much the president-elect’s threats influenced their actual business plans, which are months or years in the making and determined by an array of factors. The unemployment rate has remained at 5 percent or lower for more than a year, and many companies have been expanding their operations.
“The word is now out that when you want to move your plant to Mexico or some other place, and you want to fire all of your workers from Michigan and Ohio and all these places that I won, for good reason — not going to happen that way anymore,” Trump said at his first post-election news conference last week.
Corporate America has quickly adapted to Trump’s new posture. Fear permeates “C-suites,” where executives are trying to come up with ways to please the incoming president and avoid his wrath, according to people whose work places them in the nexus of business and politics.
William M. Daley, a financier and business executive who has served as White House chief of staff under President Obama and as secretary of commerce under former president Bill Clinton, said, “CEOs want to play nice because they’re afraid of getting caught in a Twitter storm.”
“They would never call his bluff,” Daley said. “They’re scared to death. They’ll run to the Congress and say, ‘Oh, save us from this.’ It’s a good M.O., because he knows these guys will roll over the minute he puts his sights on them.”
Scott Reed, chief strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said companies are motivated in part by what they see as a “positive business environment” under the Trump administration, which has vowed to overhaul the tax code as well as loosen environmental, financial and other regulations.
“The business community is practical and pragmatic, and looking forward to engaging with the new administration in a constructive manner,” Reed said. “This was a change election, and we like that the country is now upbeat and optimistic about real economic growth in the 3 percent to 4 percent range.”
Trump is a modern-day Roosevelt, who from the White House in the 1900s demonized banks, railroads and other businesses he viewed as insufficiently nationalist.
“Roosevelt’s bully pulpit was very ardently about going after companies and wealthy people that weren’t putting America first, that were putting their profits ahead of public goodwill,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian and Roosevelt biographer. “He did it with his fingers pointed in the face of his enemies. He would call bankers out by name.”
In the century since Roosevelt served, Brinkley said, no president has used the bully pulpit to strong-arm companies in such a relentless and aggressive manner — until Trump.
“Other presidents would show up at the Harley factory and say, ‘This is made in America. Isn’t that wonderful?’ ” Brinkley said. “But they would never go into a mano-a-mano war about bringing jobs back to America, not since Theodore Roosevelt.”
Trump said in an interview last week with The Washington Post that his early moves to badger Boeing and Lockheed Martin to bring down the costs of their aircraft — Air Force One and the F-35 fighter jet, respectively — were examples of the power of his voice.
“Look at what’s going on with the airplanes, the F-35. We’re saving such amounts of money. Look at what’s going on with Air Force One. Look at what’s going on with the auto plants,” Trump said. “And by the way, I’m not micromanaging.”
Whether Trump considers it micromanaging, he is undeniably meddling in the affairs of private companies to a greater degree than many previous presidents.
“Trump is in many ways closer to a governor than to our traditional model of president,” Gingrich said. “Governors around the country all behave like Trump: They worry about specific jobs, specific factories, specific companies. The Washington model is always abstract policy. But he’s gone straight for the jugular to say, ‘I want jobs!’ ”
Gingrich described the president-elect as a tireless entrepreneur determined to see results, and recalled Trump’s management of the Wollmann Rink in New York’s Central Park. The outdoor skating rink was in disrepair in the 1980s when Trump persuaded then-Mayor Ed Koch to take over the renovations himself. The rink reopened with great fanfare, under budget and ahead of schedule, becoming one of Trump’s biggest success stories, which he later chronicled in his 1987 bestseller, “The Art of the Deal.”
Trump’s focus on pressuring companies to create U.S. jobs could be politically advantageous. He owes his electoral victory to the Rust Belt — Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, whose manufacturing-based economies have been decimated over the past four decades by outsourcing and broader trends of globalization.
“He understands better than anybody on his team that there are two criteria for his reelection: Is America safe, and did we create jobs?” Gingrich said. “If he can run with genuine prosperity — not this phony statistical prosperity that’s all baloney — then he’s golden.”
Brinkley agreed: “He’s going to live or die by jobs. He can get away with a lot of eccentric activity if he stays out of war and if the economy does well.”
Karen Tumulty contributed to this report.