By Abby Phillip,
KENOSHA, Wis. — President Trump on Tuesday traded the gold drapery of the Oval Office for a backdrop of glittering American-made tools at a manufacturing company here, promising “bold new steps” to boost American workers and companies.
For a president who has come to love the optics of an Oval Office signing ceremony and prefers to remain close to home, the event, held in a state he narrowly won in November, represented a change of scenery and strategy.
By hitting the road, White House officials are seeking to reassure the president’s supporters that he will keep promises made during the campaign — following policy reversals that raised questions about whether the administration is moving away from its nationalistic agenda toward a more centrist approach.
“We’re going to do everything in our power to make sure more products are stamped with those wonderful words ‘Made in the USA,’ ” Trump told the employees of the Kenosha-based tool manufacturer Snap-on. “We’re sending a powerful signal to the world. We’re going to protect our workers, defend our jobs and finally put America first.”
Shortly afterward, Trump signed an executive order that will attempt to limit foreign workers coming to the United States by cracking down on fraud and abuse in a high-skilled visa program, fully enforce rules barring foreign contractors from bidding on federal contracts, and ensure that steel used in federal projects is melted and poured in the United States.
Left unmentioned at Tuesday’s event was Trump’s history of manufacturing some of his company’s products overseas and hiring foreign workers at his properties. Several of his businesses, including golf clubs and his modeling agency, have also sought to use the visa program targeted by the order.
Trump has rarely ventured far from the White House or his private properties as president, even to boost his agenda. Allies said that approach is a mistake and one that has kept him from fully capitalizing on the political support that put him in office.
“Trump won because of states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania,” said Stephen Moore, a strategic partner at 32 Advisors who advised Trump on economic issues during the campaign. “Those voters took a gamble on him. If I were him, I’d be going back to those neighborhoods and towns all the time, because you dance with the one who brung you.”
Trump won a narrow victory in Wisconsin — beating Hillary Clinton by 27,000 votes — in part by promising to bring back well-paying American jobs that had been leaving manufacturing states for decades. Experts warn many of those types of jobs will not return, but Trump’s attention to the issue won over voters. His victories in the industrial Midwest punctured a decades-long history of these states remaining solidly in the Democratic column.
But even while Trump’s aides have warned resistant lawmakers in both parties that he will travel to their districts and pressure them to support his agenda, the president has not followed through on the threat.
Even Tuesday’s event did not target any reticent congressional Republicans or Democrats — it was instead held in the district of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.).
The visit did mark an opportunity for Trump to return to campaign mode and reiterate the big promises he made on the trail but has not delivered on since taking office.
Although the executive order Trump signed Tuesday included a modest provision calling for his administration to review trade agreements with an eye toward making them fairer for American workers, Trump, apparently ad-libbing during his speech, said he is going to make “very big changes” to the North American Free Trade Agreement ,“or we are going to get rid of NAFTA for once and for all.”
“We cannot continue like this,” he added.
But last month, the Trump administration sent a draft letter to Congress that proposed making more-modest changes to the agreement than he promised during the campaign and on Tuesday.
Trump also boasted that his administration has “accomplished more in the first 90 days” than any other in history, but much of his agenda has failed to advance in Congress and his proposed travel ban on six Muslim-majority countries has been blocked by the courts.
The hits have taken a toll. A new Gallup poll released this week found that just 45 percent of Americans believe Trump will keep his promises, compared with 62 percent who said the same in February.
Trump’s trip to Wisconsin was an attempt to maintain his appeal to the working-class voters who supported him in November.
“There are a number of states that we want to visit and frankly to get outside of the Washington Beltway bubble to do some of these executive orders where we’re talking about American jobs,” said White House communications director Michael Dubke.
This year, Trump traveled to Michigan — another normally Democratic state that he narrowly won — to promote a review of environmental fuel standards, an action supported by automakers. But few of the president’s trips have been dedicated to specific items on his agenda.
Instead, Trump has participated in rallies that the White House has billed as “campaign events.”
Even during the push for the Republicans’ health-care bill, Trump’s travel outside Washington featured campaign rallies in solidly red states such as Tennessee and Kentucky, and even then the push for the bill received only a passing mention.
Democrats say that the trip to Wisconsin and the executive order Trump signed are window dressing for an administration that has otherwise done little to keep Trump’s promise of bringing back American jobs.
“I don’t think we’ve gotten a single job in America because of what the president has done — including today,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who urged Trump to support a bill backed by Democrats to use American steel and iron for infrastructure projects.
“We’re giving him a path to actually produce jobs,” he added.
On the normally quiet suburban streets on Kenosha, the fragility of Trump’s victory was on display. Dozens of demonstrators for and against the president clashed outside over his rhetoric about immigrants, Muslims and women.
Helen Powell, 67, took a bus to down the street to try to catch a glimpse of Trump and view the spectacle of protesters gathered at the site of the president’s speech.
She named “jobs” as the reason she voted for Trump after previously casting a ballot for Barack Obama.
“And he’s got God in his life,” she added. “Hillary Clinton wasn’t going to help us at all.”
She added, “She was going to get rid of all Christians, and she was going to bring in more Muslims.”
Across the street, Dawn Wrath, who didn’t vote for Trump, walked over to the crowd with her daughter after taking the day off from work.
Wrath, 41, said she has no problem with the president’s jobs message, “if it’s true.” But she said that isn’t the reason Wisconsinites voted for him.
“I think it’s mainly racism,” she added.