Dueling economic messages preview midterm battle between Trump, Democrats

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump and a top House Democrat offered dueling economic messages geared toward the heartland on Monday as both parties sought to appeal to middle-class workers who will decide the midterm election. 

President Donald Trump holds up a "Make Our Farmers Great Again" hat as he speaks during the 2018 Made in America Product Showcase event July 23, 2018, in the Cross Hall of the White House in Washington, D.C.

Call it an early test of political messaging sure to be honed and amplified in coming months: Trump and other Republicans are touting strong economic growth and last year's tax cuts while Democrats say the economy is still leaving far too many people behind.

"People are getting by, but they're not necessarily getting ahead," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said after completing a months-long listening tour in heartland states Pennsylvania and Nevada. "And that's what our country is supposed to do – give everyone a shot at getting ahead."

Trump weighed in with a “Made in America” event at the White House on Monday, ahead of trips this week to Kansas, Illinois and Iowa. Eager to shift the focus away from his interactions with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the president surveyed cowboy boots, snowboards and baseball bats brought to the White House – all of it made in America. 

"The era of economic surrender for the United States is over," Trump said. "No one rips off the United States of America anymore." 

With most economic indicators pointing up, polls show voters give Trump higher marks for his handling of the economy than for foreign policy, immigration and other issues. But the president's decision to negotiate new trade agreements by imposing stiff tariffs on billions of dollars of foreign goods has raised alarms for some. 

Trump's ability to sell his economic message and ease fears of a damaging trade war may help to determine which party controls Congress after November. The president is set to visit a steel mill in Illinois this week – where production is up following U.S. tariffs levied in May – in an early show of that effort. 

President Donald Trump  shakes hands with Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson as Chief Test Pilot Alan B. Norman watches during an event to showcase American made products at the White House July 23, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

And he will travel to Iowa on Thursday, where the trade battle with China has sent soybean prices tumbling and worried farmers of other crops sold overseas.     

"He’s been stating that the economy is good, which it is, but there’s just a lot of apprehension about farm prices," Bill Reimer, chairman of the Clayton County Republican Party in Iowa, told USA TODAY in a telephone interview.  

Reimer said he expects political fallout from the trade dispute to be small "if they're able to get any kind of resolution before the election." 

Hoyer on Monday laid out policies promoting education, entrepreneurship and infrastructure improvements, updating his "Make it in America" job-creation plan after traveling across the country for a "listening tour." Though his plan in 2010 focused on boosting manufacturing, it now includes other economic policies designed to lift the middle class.

Hoyer called on Congress to hold oversight hearings and work to strengthen the enforcement of current trade policies.

"What I am hearing is a great, great deal of concern about those policies and the depth of thinking that went into them in terms of the ramifications they might have," he said in response to a reporter's question.  

Half of voters in a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll this month said they supported the president’s economic agenda, but only 38 percent agreed with his approach to trade.

Among the products on view at the White House on Monday was an F-35 jet made by Lockheed Martin – "I know it didn’t land on the South Lawn,” Trump joked – a space capsule and bass boat. The display, which included a product from each state, was intended to underscore the nation's economic strength.  

City Machine Technologies, a Youngstown, Ohio, firm, brought a massive, industrial strength "lifting" magnet to the White House that is used by scrappers to move large chunks of metal around scrapyards.

The company, launched in 1985, has grown to about 60 employees – and is looking to expand. Claudia Kovach, who handles marketing and other responsibilities for the family-owned company, said she hasn't yet seen an impact from the brewing tariffs battles over steel and aluminum. 

"Business is booming," she said. "We are so busy we could actually hire 15 people but I've had a heck of a time trying to find them."

More:Trade wars are damaging, so why is Trump fighting one with China?

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House Democrats recently unveiled a "For the People" platform for 2018, focused on raising wages, making health care more affordable, and stopping government corruption. Hoyer said "Make it in America" complements that platform.

If House Democrats win the majority, Hoyer said skills training and infrastructure programs will be a priority.

Hoyer highlighted programs that allow students or workers well into their careers to accrue badges or certifications for specific skills to either start a career or move up. Pell grants, he said, would be one way to cover the cost of such programs.  

President Donald Trump speaks during the 2018 Made in America Product Showcase event July 23, 2018, in the Cross Hall of the White House in Washington, D.C.

Hoyer criticized Trump's proposal on infrastructure, which encourages public-private partnerships, as "woefully, woefully, woefully inadequate."

In Indianapolis alone – one stop on Hoyer's tour – he said it costs $200 million a year just to maintain its infrastructure and upgrades would cost an additional $2.5 billion. Meanwhile, he noted the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates the gap between expected federal funding and needs for infrastructure projects over the next 10 years exceeds $2 trillion. 

"We are challenged not only by what we need to repair," he said. "We also have to look to the future and build new networks to carry goods, people, energy, water and information."