President Trump and the art of jawboning

Jawboning is an unofficial technique employed by U.S. Presidents and officials to convince the business community to take action without having formal legislation passed.

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Human mandible, or jawbone. It's also a a metaphor for verbal jiujitsu. (Image via Wikipedia entry on "mandible," CC 2.5 license)

WASHINGTON, January 25, 2017 —Jawboning, or, as economists refer to it, moral suasion, is an unofficial technique often employed by U.S. Presidents and other officials to convince the public or the business community to take action without having formal legislation passed. Historically, this technique has often proved highly effective. President Trump may be taking it to a new, higher level.

Perhaps the first known example of jawboning was the attempt by social activist William Lloyd Garrison in the 1830s to end slavery in America. Seeing that legislation would be difficult to pass, Garrison gave a series of speeches essentially designed to pressure the public and elected officials to end slavery.

In the 1930s President Herbert Hoover also tried to use jawboning to convince employers to keep workers’ wages at a high level even as prices fell during the Great Depression. Then in 1979, President Carter used jawboning to threaten wage and price controls if labor and business continued to push for much higher wages and prices for finished goods.

Sometimes the results of jawboning are favorable and sometimes the technique has had no impact at all. Nonetheless, President Trump is showing us all how to effectively use the technique to quickly achieve very positive economic and political results.


His first use of this technique, which he had begun to employ prior to the election, was to try to convince American manufacturers not to relocate plants outside of the U.S. He threatened taxes on good imported to the U.S., saying the tax could be as high as 35 to 40 percent. Trump also said he would lower corporate taxes rates from the near 40 percent today to as low as 15 percent.

With these possibilities in mind, companies like Ford, GM and Carrier reversed their decision to leave the U.S. or relocate new factories outside the U.S., laying off workers here. The reality is that an import tax is very unlikely to be passed by Congress, while the lower corporate tax rates are very likely to go through. Still, Trump’s jawboning has already proved very effective.

For those times when jawboning is not effective, Trump will use executive action to enforce compliance with his policies.

For example, Trump has a very strong position favoring law and order particularly when it comes to lax standards that effectively permit illegal immigration. That is especially in cases where known convicted felons find sanctuary from legal prosecution. Trump has threatened to cut off federal funding to all so-called “sanctuary cities” — cities that have proclaimed they will shield illegal criminals from the government.

Many cities have already defied Trump’s jawboning efforts. Watch for Trump to back up his words with actions, as he signs another executive order carrying through with enforcing federal immigration laws.

Over the next few years, Trump is likely to take the concept of jawboning to new, higher levels.

Over the years, other government officials who employed this technique had two problems that often minimized jawboning’s effectiveness. The first problem was one of timing: significant time elapsed between when the actual statements were made and when the public received them. The second was that the words themselves were subject to interpretation and transcription errors made by the journalists who reported them.

Trump can overcome both problems. Instead of waiting until the evening news or the next day’s newspapers, Trump can use his Twitter account to get the message out instantly. Since millions of Americans and numerous journalists follow Trump on Twitter they can instantly see his comments and journalists can instantly publish them on the website of their employer in a matter of minutes. Trump also eliminates the problem of interpretation and re-wording by journalists because the Tweet contains his exact words and journalists usually copy the tweet verbatim.

Because new technology permits instant and accurate quotations, Trump will continue to use jawboning as a primary tactic, which will likely be very effective in building support for his policies prior to seeking sometimes difficult and often time-consuming legislation. The key to his success will be for Trump to follow through with his promises.

In the coming months, President Trump will continue to communicate directly with the American people to influence actions and build support for his economic and political policies. No other American President has had the will or the means to effectively use jawboning like Trump. With Trump’s election to the nation’s highest office, things are definitely changing.

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