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How tariffs compare in the Biden and Trump eras

Justin Ho May 14, 2024
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President Biden announced increased tariffs on Chinese products Tuesday. The current administration's levies are higher and more targeted than those under Donald Trump. Win McNamee/Getty Images

How tariffs compare in the Biden and Trump eras

Justin Ho May 14, 2024
Heard on:
President Biden announced increased tariffs on Chinese products Tuesday. The current administration's levies are higher and more targeted than those under Donald Trump. Win McNamee/Getty Images
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On Tuesday, President Joe Biden announced new tariffs on $18 billion worth of imports from China, including electric vehicles, semiconductors, solar cells and critical minerals. Now, if this sounds a little familiar to you, you’re correct.

The Donald Trump administration spent years slapping tariffs on Chinese goods, using a lot of the same arguments the Biden administration is now making: that China’s trade policies are unfair, that the country is boosting its growth at the expense of others, that these tariffs are necessary to protect American industry and jobs.

Putting on tariffs is like rooting for the home team. That was true for Trump and now for Biden.

“Tariffs at a basic level are a disincentive to import. And where do you get stuff if you’re not importing? You buy domestically,” said Robert Johnson, an economics professor at the University of Notre Dame.

He said Biden is actually building on what Trump has already done.

“Meaning that there were about $300 billion worth of tariffs introduced under the Trump administration. Most of those have been left in place after a four-year review of that policy,” Johnson said.

But there are differences. The Trump administration slapped tariffs on a wide range of goods, using a wide range of justifications, said Mary Lovely at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

“Sometimes they were justified as a way to reduce the bilateral trade deficit. At other times it was retaliation for China’s unfair trade practices,” she said.

Trump also targeted Canada, Europe and other American allies. But Biden’s tariffs on Chinese imports are much more narrowly tailored — specifically toward the industries the administration’s been trying to promote with other legislation.

“The work that was done through the Inflation Reduction Act to support U.S. electric vehicle manufacturing, batteries, critical minerals,” Lovely said.

Biden’s tariffs might be more targeted, but they’re also a lot higher. Rachel Brewster, a professor at Duke Law School, said the Trump administration set tariffs in the 10% to 25% range.

“What they were trying to do is say to the Chinese government, ‘We’re flexing our muscles. We’re hurting you. And so you need to talk to us,’” Brewster said.

But the Biden administration has raised certain tariffs a lot more. Semiconductors and solar cells will face a 50% levy. And tariffs on electric vehicles will rise to 100%.

“Once you hit 100%, you could make the tariff a thousand percent. Ten thousand percent. A million percent,” she said. “You know, it’s like no goods are getting in.”

A tariff that high is effectively a ban on Chinese EVs, Brewster added.

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