From the Director: The global economy and the rhyme of history

From the Director: The global economy and the rhyme of history

Globalization image
Volume 10 of the Miller Center's First Year Project is available beginning Monday, April 3 at

On Monday, the Miller Center will release a new set of First Year Project essays suggesting how the new president might address the global economy. Some of the leading economic policy minds in the country—including noted GOP economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who examines one of the critical issues in this article—lay out an agenda on some of our thorniest policy challenges. 

When you read the essays, I ask you to consider the following scenario: 

A new Upstart Outsider president wins office by beating the odds. While the post-WWII consensus favors deeper integration among the world’s industrial democracies, the Upstart Outsider harnesses the support of working class white voters in middle America who remain fearful of globalization. His party had ignored those workers in previous elections, and vice versa, to their mutual peril. 

The Upstart Outsider successfully rallies those voters against trade deals—NAFTA in particular, but also against cooperating with China. Relentless focus on this economic message—the one and only issue on which he consistently scored better than his opponent—gets him elected. 

After winning, however, the Upstart Outsider stumbles out of the gate. He focuses on cultural issues, as opposed to the economic issues that propelled him to office. And though his party controls both houses of Congress, the first 100 days fly by without a long-promised budget deal. Other priorities stall, such as reforming health care and a signature infrastructure bill. The Upstart Outsider’s approval ratings plummet—dropping below 40 percent within his first months. 

Sound familiar? While this might describe Donald Trump’s first 70 days in office, it also describes another recent Upstart Outsider: Bill Clinton.  

Bill Clinton’s opposition to NAFTA and WTO negotiations were central to his 1992 campaign to defeat George H.W. Bush. Yet after Clinton’s first “semester” in office—where he struggled to pass a budget, found himself distracted on issues such as gays in the military, made little progress on health care reform, fumbled confirmation battles, and botched the siege at Waco, Texas—he began to refocus his agenda. 

President Clinton signing NAFTA
President Clinton signing NAFTA

Against a different set of odds, Clinton found that passing NAFTA and the WTO—both after some modifications of the original agreements—allowed him to create a new and unexpected alliance across party lines. Former Presidents Bush and Ford joined him at the signing ceremony, along with President Carter. 

What are the lessons for President Trump? That it is not too late to reengage with the global economy. As the spring turns to summer, the new president will find himself in a set of international meetings – from NATO to the summit with EU leaders to his first G-7 summit—where he will need to project global leadership. The failure to reach a health care and budget agreement will make his domestic legislative agenda harder. But that provides an opening for Trump to recommit to American leadership in the global economy, while fixing a few major items of interest to American workers. 

Our six First Year essays next week will explore some of those issues—including where the president can stand up for American workers and where he can make the case that those arrangements are in America’s interests. We hope you will tune back in and help share them with the new administration.