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President Donald Trump’s Bold Plans Didn’t Change Oregon’s Economic Trajectory

Jonathan Levinson

What has President Trump done for Oregon? Here’s a breakdown on what he did and didn’t deliver.

In 2016, Donald Trump made just one campaign visit to Oregon — and it included some big promises to restore timber jobs.

“You need help from the federal government,” Trump told a raucous crowd in Eugene in advance of the state’s May primary. “Timber jobs have been cut in half since 1990. We’re going to bring 'em up folks, we’re going to do it right. We’re going to bring 'em up, OK?”

In the years since, the Trump administration has indeed been friendlier to the timber industry as it seeks to increase timber harvests in the national forests. But as past Republican administrations have learned, returning the industry to an upward trajectory is exceptionally difficult.

Logging and forestry jobs are down since Trump took office. And wood products manufacturing stayed about flat until the COVID-19 pandemic, when it dipped.

This is a story that has repeated itself across Oregon during most of Trump’s years in office. The state’s economy largely stayed on the same trajectory as during the Obama administration. Oregon’s overall manufacturing employment stayed level, but Trump’s protectionist trade policies didn’t lead to big job gains. Ditto for agriculture, which won some favorable regulatory policies, but lost markets in China because of the trade wars.

“I can’t think of anything that has changed dramatically for any of those industries,” said Joe Cortright, a Portland economist who chairs the governor’s council of economic advisors. “There hasn’t been any shift towards growth in any of those sectors that wasn’t already apparent.”

In the same fashion, Trump has not been able to reverse many of the most important policies that Oregon’s Democratic-dominated government cherishes. So far, the administration has been unable to abolish the Affordable Care Act — otherwise known as Obamacare — that state leaders have aggressively used to provide health care for low-income Oregonians. The federal food-stamp program remains intact despite attempted rollbacks by the Trump administration.

Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum recently told OPB she’s now participated in more than 25 lawsuits challenging Trump administration policies on everything from the environment to immigration. Meanwhile, the Oregon Legislature and Gov. Kate Brown strengthened protections for abortion rights as Trump has worked to confirm a Supreme Court justice nominee that could repeal Roe vs. Wade.

That, of course, doesn’t mean that Trump’s presidential term hasn’t been hugely consequential for people in the Pacific Northwest.

Like the rest of the country, Oregonians have experienced the twists and turns of a presidency different than any other in living memory. For example, the Trump administration has gone much further than any recent administrations — Republican or Democratic — in trying to close the borders to immigrants, reduce legal immigration and ratchet up deportations. That deeply affects Oregon, home to the nation’s 14th largest per capita Latino population.

Since the racial justice protests started in Portland in May, Trump has repeatedly attacked the city’s handling of them — more than 70 times in tweets or retweets and at his prime-time speech for the Republican National Convention. His administration last month declared Portland an “anarchist jurisdiction” and has threatened to yank some federal funds.

Most of all, virtually no one has been untouched by the pandemic and by Trump’s handling of it.
Whether you blame the president for not moving more decisively to limit the spread of the virus or the governor for restricting business activity, the unprecedented sharp economic slowdown has at least temporarily wiped out all of the job gains — and more — of Trump’s presidency. In Oregon, employment levelsare now back to where they were at the beginning of President Barack Obama’s last year in office.

As a result, Cortright and other economists say, you can’t talk about Trump’s economic record in Oregon without considering his handling of the pandemic.

Still, examining some of Trump’s policies in Oregon is also a reminder of how the president’s outsized rhetoric and claims of dealmaking mastery often don’t get him what he wanted — at least not initially.

With that in mind, here’s a quick tour of three key Oregon issues and how they stand as we approach the Nov. 3 election.

The environment, and timber’s role

Timber and agriculture no longer dominate Oregon’s economy. But the state’s vast forests and farmlands are still important, and they’re part of a huge and dramatic landscape that defines so much of life in Oregon.

Urban Oregon may think that Trump cares little about helping its residents. He lost the state in the 2016 elections, and he’s never visited since. When he mentions Oregon, it’s mostly to bash Portland. But from the day Trump took office, the rural areas and natural-resource industries that so heavily supported him have been rewarded with attention and support.

A man holds a Timber Unity sign at a rally at the state Capitol in Salem in June of 2019.
David Stuckey
A man holds a Timber Unity sign at a rally at the state Capitol in Salem in June of 2019.

“On our issues involving western water and farming and ranching, we’ve got the best attention from this administration that I’ve ever seen,” said Dan Keppen, executive director of the Klamath Falls-based Family Farm Alliance.

He said the administration sent a mediator to the Klamath basin to try to work out conflicts among different water users, including tribes, farmers and environmentalists. And this July, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt visited to meet with farmers.

Trump two years ago signed an executive order to promote the “reliable supply and delivery of water in the West,” and it included a call to speed work in the Klamath basin and on the Columbia River. In the latter case, varied interests have been fighting for years over salmon restoration and whether to remove four Snake River dams blamed for much of the loss of fish habitat.

However, no agreement has been reached so far in the Klamath Basin. And a legal roadblock surrounding liability issues could delay PacifiCorp’s plans to remove four dams on the Klamath River, which would play a big role in improving salmon habitat while helping the commercial fisheries up and down the West Coast.

Under the Trump administration, the Bonneville Power Administration and several federal agencies finalized a new environmental plan for overseeing the operation of the Columbia River. It rules out consideration of breaching the Snake River dams, but at this point, the warring parties seem to agree that more litigation is at stake.

Timber industry leaders have also been wooed by the administration. A year ago, Trump’s then-campaign manager, Brad Parscale, and Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law and one of his campaign advisers, visited Freres Lumber Co. in the small Oregon town of Lyons to listen to industry concerns and talk up the president’s record.

Rob Freres, the company’s president, said the visit was another reminder of the administration’s concern for boosting the industry versus the antagonism he felt from the last two Democratic presidencies.

“We’ve been given a breather for four years,” Freres said, “with the hope that things will improve.”

Bernhardt and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, whose department oversees the U.S. Forest Service, have pushed for larger harvests on federal lands. Those public lands were once the largest source of wood for Oregon mills, but that’s changed since environmental protections put much of the federal forests — particularly those with old-growth trees — off limits for logging.

Steve Pedery of Oregon Wild, a Portland-based environmental group, said the change in the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management has been clear since Trump took office.

“We’ve experienced a real shift from a balanced approach that emphasized restoration, outdoor recreation and resource extraction,” said Pedery, the group’s conservation director, “to an approach that really emphasizes just logging, mining and grazing.”

But that did not mean the administration got its way. Instead, litigation was soon heating up at the courtroom door.

Oregon Wild and other environmental groups fought logging proposals they said would violate needed environmental protections. One was the 7,500-acre Crystal Clear logging sale on the east side of Mount Hood. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appealsblocked that, saying the U.S. Forest Service’s failure to perform an environmental impact statement was “arbitrary and capricious.”

Freres, the timber executive, said harvest levels are “inching upward.” But he said the Northwest Forest Plan — established by President Bill Clinton’s administration in 1994 after the northern spotted owl was listed as a threatened species — continues to keep much of the national forests closed to logging.

Portland forest economist Mark Rasmussen, who frequently works with the timber industry, said the harvest levels could be greatly increased on a sustainable basis.

“But no president has been able to make any difference on it in the national forests, as near as I can tell,” he said.

Loading logs onto the line at a lumber mill in Glendale, Oregon.
Jes Burns
Loading logs onto the line at a lumber mill in Glendale, Oregon.

Some think that could change in the wake of the massive wildfires that raged up and down the West Coast this summer. Public pressure is building for action aimed at finding ways to tackle the growing threat of cataclysmic fire. Trump and Republicans in Congress say the answer is to return to more intensive timber harvests, which they say is necessary to reduce fuel loads on overstocked forests.

Democratic lawmakers from the West Coast have focused more on providing more money for thinning and controlled burns while maintaining environmental protections and combating climate change that has fueled hotter weather. Democratic vice presidential nominee and California Sen. Kamala Harris has her own wildfire legislation; it focuses on providing federal money to better protect fire-prone communities.

Oregon’s safety net

Matt Newell-Ching, public policy manager at the Oregon Food Bank, runs through a list of efforts by the Trump administration to tighten eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

So far none of the changes have taken effect. But it’s a largely new battle for anti-poverty activists.

The attacks are “very unique to this administration,” Newell-Ching said. “SNAP is typically a very bipartisan program … It’s a fairly recent development that there is an effort to take away this food.”

In fact, Congress had rejected curtailing SNAP benefits when it adopted the latest Farm Bill overseeing agriculture-related programs in 2018. But the administration proceeded with the rule changes anyway.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue argued last year that such action was crucial to prevent “abuse of a critical safety net system, so those who need food assistance the most are the only ones who receive it.”

Newell-Ching said tighter eligibility standards for able-bodied adults without children have been so far blocked in court, with the latest ruling coming just this weekend. Two other rules were still in the bureaucratic pipeline when the pandemic hit and it became politically tougher to cut food aid. Since last February, the number of SNAP beneficiaries in Oregon has climbed from about 586,000 to more than 700,000, Newell-Ching said.

Earlier in the Trump administration, an even bigger battle was waged over the Affordable Care Act, which had expanded Medicaid health-care coverage to millions of uninsured people around the country.

“Oregon would have been one of the most hardest-hit” of the states if that had succeeded, said Janet Bauer, a policy analyst at the Oregon Center for Public Policy, which advocates for low-income people. That’s because the state had aggressively enrolled Oregonians as part of its longstanding drive to achieve universal coverage.

The Republican effort in Congress failed, although a legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act is going before the U.S. Supreme Court next month — once again putting a cloud over Medicaid expansion.

There is much more, of course, to the safety net. The Trump administration has sought major cuts to federal housing aid, threatening to exacerbate Oregon’s existing problems with high rents and rising home prices. And the state’s growing Latino community has particularly found itself caught in the crossfire of Trump’s drive to reduce immigration levels, both legal and illegal.

The administration has been more aggressive about deportations. It implemented a “public charge” rule that denies permanent residency permits to immigrants who seek several safety-net benefits. It has also admitted far fewer legal immigrants than previous administrations.

Inside the Occupy ICE PDX camp at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Portland, Saturday, June 23, 2018.
Bradley W. Parks
Inside the Occupy ICE PDX camp at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Portland, Saturday, June 23, 2018.

Oregon’s 1987 law limiting local law enforcement cooperation with immigration authorities — and similar policies by other cities and states — also came under attack by the Trump administration.

Adriana Miranda, executive director ofCausa, a Salem-based immigrant rights group, said she’s proud that Oregon voters rejected a 2018 measure to abolishing the law with a resounding 63% no vote.

But Miranda said some of the biggest challenges from the Trump administration went beyond policy.

“One of the biggest harms from this administration is this hateful narrative and rhetoric against our community,” she said. “And we’ve all felt it, and we all see it.”

Oregon’s economy

Until the pandemic, Oregon’s economy was on a roll during the Trump years.

Jobs were growing faster than in most of America. In 2018, for the first time in almost four decades, the state’s median household income was above the national average. This February, unemployment reached 3.3%, the lowest since comparable statistics were first used in the mid-1970s.

Eric Fruits, a Portland economist who has been active in the Republican Party, doesn’t argue that the president deserves all the credit for Oregon’s strong job growth. But he said there was an “exuberance” in the business sector that “we were going to see a slowdown in the over-regulation that we had seen for the past eight years.”

But not everyone agrees.

“I think mostly what we’ve seen is a continuation … of the recovery from the Great Recession,” said Cortright, from the governor’s council of economic advisers. “That started under President Obama. And it very much stayed on that trajectory.”

Josh Lehner of the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis said that what changed in the Trump years is that the record-long economic expansion drove down unemployment to the point that the labor market became tight. That drove up wages, including for lower and moderate-income households, he said.

“Where the unemployment rate was really low,” he said, “businesses had to raise wages to be competitive in the market and hire workers.”

Of course, it was not a smooth ascent. The Trump administration introduced a new element that shook trade-dependent Oregon — a strong turn toward a protectionist, “America First” policy. Trump started a trade war with China and threatened to ditch the North American Free Trade Agreement. He also pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an attempt Obama championed to participate in a Pacific Rim free-trade pact separate from China.

John Allen, a shredder mechanic, works on part of a new machine at SSI Shredding Systems, Inc. on Wednesday, May 15, 2019, in Wilsonville, Ore. SSI and companies like it import many materials to build their machines and then export the machines across the globe. Tariffs like those imposed under the Trump administration affect nearly every portion of their supply chain, threatening jobs.
Bradley W. Parks
John Allen, a shredder mechanic, works on part of a new machine at SSI Shredding Systems, Inc. on Wednesday, May 15, 2019, in Wilsonville, Ore. SSI and companies like it import many materials to build their machines and then export the machines across the globe. Tariffs like those imposed under the Trump administration affect nearly every portion of their supply chain, threatening jobs.

Trump’s actions rocked Oregon manufacturers and agricultural producers, which had spent decades building international trade ties.

Business groups organized to push back against the administration.

“A lot of these policies hurt us, hurt our jobs, hurt our quality of life,” said Maria Ellis, executive director of the Pacific Northwest International Trade Association. The group’s members are a Who’s Who of the state’s business community, including Intel, Nike and the railcar manufacturer Greenbrier.

Trump’s saber-rattling on trade led to a replacement treaty for NAFTA, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which was finalized in late 2019. The pact opened up new dairy markets in Canada and some concessions for U.S. automakers. But Ellis said Oregon businesses were largely pleased by how much it maintained their long-established trade practices.

“It’s not like a switch, you can’t just change your supply chain,” Ellis said. “We’re in a global economy now, and even if you do most of your manufacturing in Oregon, you’re likely sourcing a lot of your inputs from all over the world.”

The China trade war was more tumultuous, with a dizzying array of ups and downs. Among other things, it’s hit a wide swatch of agricultural producers, from cherry farmers to cattle ranchers.

Apples for sale at the Liepold Farms produce stand in Boring, Ore., on Friday, April 3, 2020.
Bryan M. Vance
Apples for sale at the Liepold Farms produce stand in Boring, Ore., on Friday, April 3, 2020.

“That has not been helpful for Oregon agriculture, at least in the short term,” said Tim Bernasek, a Portland lawyer who works with the Oregon Farm Bureau and several other agricultural clients.

But many farmers appreciate the administration’s lighter touch on regulation and are willing to give Trump some latitude on trade.

Bernasek said he’s heard clients say, “If he’s going to pick this fight, we better win it. If we’re going to get this short-term pain, we better get some long-term gain out of this.”

Right now, all of Oregon — and just about all of the world, for that matter — is experiencing the pain of economic recession. Oregon’s unemployment rate shot up to 14.9% in April before recovering to 8% in September.

Even more than usual, no one can be quite sure what will happen next. One big factor, said economist Cortright, is when and if Congress produces another big stimulus package to help with recovery. “So a lot of it,” he said, “is tied up with both election politics and then post-election politics.”

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Jeff Mapes is a senior political reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, Jeff covered state and national politics for The Oregonian for nearly 32 years. He has covered numerous presidential, congressional, gubernatorial and ballot measure campaigns, as well as many sessions of the Legislature, stretching back to 1985. Jeff graduated from San Jose State University with a B.A. in journalism.