Ah, it's tariff season in the US again!
U.S. presidential elections are decided in a swath of states from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, or at least close presidential elections have been decided in these states. President Trump won in 2016 by appealing to blue-collar voters in these states. President Obama in 2004 won Ohio and Indiana along with Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin and held all of these but Indiana in 2008. President George W. Bush in 2000 won Ohio and Indiana and kept them in 2004. Also little noticed in the aftermath of the 2004 election, President Bush was about as close to winning Pennsylvania in 2004 as John Kerry was to winning Ohio.
There is another link among these three presidents, from both parties, who faced this same basic electoral map. Each of these presidents facing midterm elections during his first term in office and then his re-election slapped tariffs on products produced in the swing-state swath of states within two years of taking office.
President Bush put quotas on steel of eight percent to thirty percent. Pennsylvania and Ohio are both steel states. These tariffs took effect in March 2002. President Bush exempted Canada and Mexico and several developing countries from his tariffs. These tariffs were slated to last until 2005 but were ended in December 2003. President Bush's party famously gained seats in both the Senate and the House in the 2002 midterm elections.
President Obama perhaps having noted the results in 2002 slapped a twenty-five to thirty-five percent quotas on tires from China in September 2009. Curiously the center of the US tire industry is Ohio and the workers in this industry are members of the steelworkers union. However, President Obama's party lost seats both the Senate and House in the 2010 midterm elections.
President Trump, who ran on such policies, recently put a twenty-five-percent tariff on steel and a ten-percent tariff on aluminum. Again steel is produced in swing states, including Pennsylvania and Ohio. Like President Bush, President Trump has exempted some counties from his tariffs and has discussed exempting additional counties. We do not yet know what will happen in the 2018 midterm elections, but after what happened after in the 2002 midterms, it is hardly surprising that the next Republican president would try steel tariffs again.
So we have three presidents, one Democrat and two Republicans, one outsider in president Trump and two insiders, each of whom saw it in their best interests to impose tariffs before his first midterm elections. These tariffs curiously affect products from workers in the swath of swing states that decide American presidential elections. This seems to imply that these tariffs are more of a political policy than an economic one.
An interesting fact about these tariffs is how they are covered on the internet. As I write this, the George W. Bush tariffs are discussed on his Wikipedia page, and President's Trumps tariffs are discussed, but the Obama tariffs are completely ignored on his Wikipedia page. Also, in general, despite the lowest top tariff rate of the three presidents, the tone of coverage of the Trump tariffs seems more negative than the tone of coverage of the Bush tariffs, which seems more negative than the Obama tariffs. Also, it is interesting that the coverage of the Obama tariffs seems to be disappearing to some extent.
The conclusion that recent American tariffs are more political than economic should cause us to understand a couple of things. The first is that President Trump, given his campaign rhetoric, certainly had to follow through with some tariffs, since Presidents George W. Bush and Obama also imposed tariffs despite running more as free traders. The second thing to understand is that we should hardly be surprised if whichever Democrat or Republican is president in 2025 and 2026 imposes tariffs to help swing states prior to the 2026 midterm elections. It will be tariff season again.