US President Donald Trump is over-promising to farmers as his administration looks primed to under-deliver.
The expectations mismanagement sets up a reckoning with a key voting bloc that is already divided on the President's push to rip up trade alliances in search of better terms.
Trump is heralding the trade truce he struck last week with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker as a "breakthrough", telling an Iowa rally last Thursday that he "just opened up Europe for you farmers".
Not so, European officials say. "On agriculture, I think we've been very clear on that - that agriculture is out of the scope of these discussions," a European Commission representative said Friday, per the Wall Street Journal.
In fact, the world's two largest economies are engaging on a pair of agricultural issues. But European moves on both fronts predate last week's summit. The two sides are continuing ongoing negotiations toward lifting European barriers to high-end American beef. And the Europeans are talking up their intent to buy more American soybeans, although they already needed more of the product and likely won't make up for orders the Chinese have cancelled as part of their trade fight with the Trump administration.
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"Agriculture is one of the most sensitive and difficult trade questions for Europe, especially for France, and the US and Europe have fought for years over everything from European tariffs to US use of hormones and genetically modified products. They say that when Trump aides tried to broaden the talks from industrial products to agriculture, they threatened to demand the US drop its 'Buy American' provisions for government procurement, a non-starter for the Trump administration.
"The US side 'heavily insisted to insert the whole field of agricultural products,' Juncker told reporters right after the meeting. 'We refused that because I don't have a mandate and that's a very sensitive issue in Europe.'"
Meanwhile, the administration's $12 billion plan to bail out farmers caught in the tariff crossfire won't fully compensate them for the damage they suffer, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said over the weekend. "Obviously this is not going to make farmers whole," Perdue told Reuters on Saturday from a G-20 meeting in Buenos Aires.
But he said up to $8 billion in direct cash payments to farmers will go out "in late September or October" - so growers will see some relief before Election Day.
Of course, Trump's confrontation with Europe only represents one battle in a multi-front war. The administration is poised to continue escalating its fight with China by imposing another $16 billion in tariffs on Chinese imports, and Beijing has pledged to respond in kind. And it remains in scrapes with Japan, Canada, Mexico and Turkey.
Farmers' views on the matter are mixed. A slim majority expect short-term pain from Trump's tariffs, a new CBS poll shows - but by the same margin as all Americans. Farmers are more optimistic than the broader electorate that the duties will lead to better deals long-term, though they are divided on the question, with 41 per cent expecting better deals and 42 per cent expecting worse ones.
Some aren't giving the President the benefit of the doubt. "I am a farmer and a Trump supporter. I agree that China needs to be punished for stealing patented US technology. But opening a new front in this trade war, while trying to reduce the blowback on farmers with a Great Depression-era transfer program, is not the right approach," Kalena Bruce, a fifth-generation rancher, wrote in the Washington Post last week. "It is the economic equivalent of treating a hangnail by cutting off your finger."
Brian Duncan, an Illinois hog farmer, told Fox Business that the President's promises leave too much uncertainty. "There's just so many unknowns, and just like with the aid package the President announced on Tuesday, you know, we don't know enough of the details yet to say how that's going to benefit" farmers, he said.
Other Trump officials haven't gone as far as the President in proclaiming the administration has already delivered a win to farmers. But they aren't tamping down Trump's boast, either.
Top White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said last week's meeting yielded "a great victory for this country". And he urged Americans to put the trade fight with Europe in the context of its confrontation with China.
"What we would ask as an administration is people to see the chessboard, that China is trying to hold us hostage. They rob our house, and we try to stop them, and now they're bullying our farmers," Navarro told NPR.
Vice-president Mike Pence is waiving off concerns from Republican lawmakers that farmers and others are bearing the cost of the trade war.
"We respect members of Congress; we respect them standing up for interest in their district, but we're grateful for the support they provided for the president's agenda," he told Fox News's Maria Bartiromo.
"And we remain confident that as we reset the balance in those trading relationships, that it's going to win for their districts and win for America."
- Washington Post