U.S. voters see manufacturing as economic priority
August 3, 2012 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
U.S. voters see manufacturing as economic priority
By Scott Paul
Aug. 2, 2012
Political pundits predict a close presidential race this fall, both nationally and in Wisconsin, due to an electorate equally divided between the parties and split on many major issues. However, voters across the political spectrum demonstrate remarkable agreement with the following statement: "Our top economic priority should be restoring America's global leadership in manufacturing."
The Alliance for American Manufacturing released a national poll in July that found a substantial majority of voters rate manufacturing as the industry "most important to the overall strength of the American economy." Voters support a national strategy to restore U.S. manufacturing competitiveness, and they want aggressive action by Washington to help create manufacturing jobs.
How important is manufacturing to voters? It ranked higher than even such pressing issues as the deficit, cutting spending and reforming immigration.
It's especially critical in Wisconsin, where manufacturing accounts for a fifth of the economy - one of the highest percentages of any state - and provides 450,000 jobs.
Are the presidential candidates responding? So far, voters aren't satisfied that either candidate is matching rhetoric with action. Even when politicians talk more about manufacturing, as they have in recent years, they don't lay out clear plans to create more manufacturing jobs, according to the voters surveyed.
So what do voters want? The poll showed overwhelming support for government action to discourage outsourcing, strongly enforce trade rules, provide retraining and education, implement Buy America policies and create incentives for investment in the United States.
Voters understand the fundamental truth about the erosion of America's manufacturing base: It has occurred in large part because of misguided trade policies. Under both parties, the federal government has failed to confront predatory practices, such as currency manipulation and massive subsidies, used by our trading partners.
China, which alone accounts for 57,000 Wisconsin jobs lost over the past decade, was the top concern of the voters surveyed. More than two-thirds of respondents said that China's trade violations were responsible for U.S. job losses. And 62% want the federal government to get tougher on China for violating our trade agreements.
Some argue that confronting China could start a trade war. But voters don't buy it; more than 60% preferred a policy of confrontation over one of diplomatic passivity. And 83% had an unfavorable view of companies that outsource jobs to China.
Wisconsin's economy has gotten a boost from President Barack Obama's rescue of the auto industry, an action that received high marks nationally. Sixty-one percent of those polled supported the government's action, and 57% think the quality of U.S. cars has improved since the government acted. The auto parts industry accounts for 43,000 jobs in Wisconsin, so the president may gain political advantage here from this recent success story.
But the president could do more, starting with a trade action against China for massively subsidizing its auto parts industry. Auto parts manufacturers produce three-quarters of auto industry jobs but have suffered immensely while the U.S. auto parts trade deficit with China has grown 900% over the past decade. Washington needs to stand up for them.
For his part, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has promised to take action against China on Day One of his presidency. Action is certainly needed: China's systematic undervaluation of its currency, which artificially lowers the price of Chinese exports, has contributed to the loss of nearly 2 million U.S. manufacturing jobs since 2001. But when push came to shove, Romney opposed relief for tire workers in America after surges of Chinese imports flooded the market.
There's more to do, though. A remarkable 87% of voters support strong Buy America preferences to ensure that their tax dollars are spent on American-made components for the next generation of bridges, rail and other infrastructure projects.
The most encouraging news from our national survey? Voters remain optimistic about America's economic future. Though 56% say the U.S. is no longer the world's strongest economy, nearly nine in 10 think it could be again. One sign of hope: The favorability rating of America's manufacturers has risen from 68% to 91% in the past two years.
Voters fervently hope for a day when America again leads the world in making things. They want their leaders to share that dream - and to do what's necessary to make it a reality. A presidential candidate who fails to articulate a bold national manufacturing strategy will have trouble winning in November.
Scott Paul is executive director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a nonprofit, nonpartisan partnership formed in 2007 by some of America's leading manufacturers and the United Steelworkers to explore common solutions to challenging public policy topics such as job creation, infrastructure investment, international trade and global competitiveness.