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Donald Trump saves 1,000 Carrier jobs; declaims success from 'the bully pulpit'

The President-elect's aggressive rhetoric might just have helped save 1,000 US manufacturing jobs, but the tactic has major limitations.

Chalk one up for The Donald. The US president-elect has finally secured some post-election positive PR by convincing air conditioning manufacturer Carrier not to move production from Indianapolis to Mexico. The change will safeguard 1,000 jobs in Indiana – where Trump’s vice president-elect Mike Pence is currently governor – although it does appear 400 will be lost.

Still, it’s a start. And given the emphasis Trump placed on mid-western manufacturing jobs during the campaign, an important one - but just how successful will he be in replicating it?

A thousand jobs retained at Carrier does not address Trump’s broader target of creating – or, for manufacturing and other industries, bringing back - 25 million. However, it does give a clue as to what the new president will try to do to hit that number once he is actually running the White House.

His predecessor Theodore Roosevelt famously described the US presidency as ‘the bully pulpit’. It is the world’s most powerful platform for setting an agenda and, more important here, calling out those who ignore it.

Even as a candidate, Trump targeted Carrier. On the stump in Indiana, he committed himself to forcing the company to reverse its decision: “It’s not like we have an 80 per cent chance of keeping [the Carrier jobs] or a 95 per cent [one]. 100 per cent.”

The message was clear. Should Carrier go ahead with the move to Mexico under a Trump presidency, it could expect a lot of vitriol to come spraying its way from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. As a household brand – and one that has hitherto been regarded as its market’s gold standard by Americans – the company had a lot to lose. Talk ain’t that cheap after all.

Of course, another brand you should immediately be thinking about in this context is Apple. It was on the end of even more of Trump’s confrontational rhetoric during the campaign – albeit more for jobs he said the company had already shifted overseas – and is also regarded as making high-quality products.

Since the election, Apple CEO Tim Cook and Trump have discussed the manufacturing issue. Afterwards, the President-elect told The New York Times:

“I got a call from Tim Cook at Apple and I said, ‘Tim, you know one of the things that will be a real achievement for me is when I get Apple to build a big plant in the United States, or many big plants in the United States, where instead of going to China, and going to Vietnam, and going to the places that you go to, you’re making your product right here.’

“He said, ‘I understand that.’ I said: ‘I think we’ll create the incentives for you and I think you’re going to do it. We’re going for a very large tax cut for corporations, which you’ll be happy about.’”

For the moment, Cook’s official position is non-committal, but the conversation provides yet further evidence that things get a wee bit more intense once the verbals are no longer coming from a candidate for but the holder of the most powerful elected office on the planet.

There are, however, a couple of limitations to Trump’s strategy.

First, this kind of politicking that might have some mileage when it comes to consumer brands, but much less when it comes to producers of industrial products. If you asked Americans to, say, boycott Apple, you might get some traction, but what, say, if you asked them to avoid products related to Intel or AMD or any other chipmaker? In the latter case, chances are they wouldn’t know how to.

Second, there is already talk of ‘anti-Trump marketing’. It sounds like a perverse Hipster 2.0 strategy: capitalize on the deep dislike many Americans feel for their new president by actively promoting the values your products hold that are the antithesis of his. Here, some brickbats from the White House could do you more good than harm - for example, the failing’ New York Times has added 132,000 new subscribers since Trump's victory.

All that is before you consider the other difficult issue around manufacturing today. Such is the use of robotics and other forms of automation that securing a state-of-the-art factory for your country does not necessarily mean it will create that many jobs – there is only a fraction of the 4.5 million manufacturing jobs the US has lost since 1994 up for grabs globally.

Ultimately, the policy will matter more than the rhetoric and Carrier has also received the usual ‘undisclosed assurances’. As is the case with so much of the Trump agenda, we have only outlines and goals to review today, but scant detail. Even Trump’s call with Cook doesn’t seem to have gone far beyond The Donald’s familiar “It’s gonna be huge and you’re gonna love it” mantra.

Yes, Carrier is a victory for Trump, but it also shows how far he has to go to convince a still generally sceptical US industry – it cannot be all talk, even if that might get you further than you would think.

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