AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's been challenging trying to keep up with President Trump's positions on a variety of key issues. In the past week or so, he's reversed course on his thoughts about NATO, his view of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and whether to trust Russia. Yesterday alone, he expressed new positions on several economic issues in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.
We're joined now by Russ Roberts. He's a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He's here to help us understand some of these messages. Welcome to the program.
RUSS ROBERTS: Good to be with you.
CORNISH: I want to start with China because Trump's criticism of China was a centerpiece of his presidential campaign. Here's what he said at a rally back in October.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I will direct my secretary of the treasury to label China a currency manipulator. They are. They know.
CORNISH: Yesterday Trump said that he would not label China a currency manipulator after all. What makes this notable to your mind?
ROBERTS: Well, I think he's trying to signal that he's backing down from some of the more incendiary claims he made during the campaign about China generally. Currency manipulator is one of them, but he also talked about them as being just an unfair trading partner, that they are responsible for a lot of economic damage in the United States.
And this played very well in the campaign. I suspect it hasn't played very well in his presidency, in his administration. It's scaring a lot of people around the world as it did during the campaign, but now he has the power that the United States might be on the verge of a trade war with China. And I think most people are telling him that that's a really bad idea.
CORNISH: You know, during the campaign, Donald Trump said the Federal Reserve chair, Janet Yellen, was keeping borrowing rates low to help Hillary Clinton and Democrats. Yesterday he told The Wall Street Journal that he liked and respected Yellen. What do you make of his change in tone?
ROBERTS: I think that's a similar signal he's trying to send to world markets. You mentioned in your introduction that he's changed his mind on lots of things, and that's create a lot of uncertainty in global markets. It's created a lot of uncertainty on the part of business. It's created a lot of uncertain on the part of investors, on the part of consumers. And that's really bad for making economic decisions looking into the future.
So I see both of these moves. It's his way of saying, you know, I'm not going to shake up everything. There are going to be some things that are going to be business as usual, and he's trying to calm things down a little bit, which is a change of pace.
CORNISH: Another economic issue - the federal Export-Import Bank. It finances exports. And Trump has essentially agreed with critics who describe it as a kind of slush fund for big corporations. And now we have comments yesterday from the White House that the bank is a very good thing, that it helps small companies.
ROBERTS: Well, I have a little harder time squeezing that into my idea of the first two changes we talked about. The fact that he's stepped back from that is alarming in a different way. It's alarming because it suggests he's going to not keep the promise he made to drain the swamp, which is one of the few things I like economically about President Trump's campaign promises - his idea that special interests would not be able to rule Washington the way they have in the past. And this is such a small program, but it's so symbolic of how hard it is to take away goodies from corporations. And yet President Trump seems to feel it necessary now to just leave that alone.
CORNISH: Governing is of course different from campaigning. So what to you are the implications of a president that appears to be changing positions dramatically from what he said during the campaign days?
ROBERTS: I think it depends on where you come from both ideologically and politically. I'm a pretty hardcore free marketer, and so I thought the idea of starting a trade war with China would be a disaster. The fact that he has walked back that promise and has said, you know, China - not really a currency manipulator; I'm not going to label them that way - to me, that's a sign of maturity. But I can see for other people, it's like, well, what's he stand for? He doesn't stand for anything. It's one thing to say, I'm going to be a compromiser once I get into office, but he apparently stands for nothing.
CORNISH: Russ Roberts is a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and host of the weekly podcast EconTalk. Thanks so much.
ROBERTS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.