A Sober Trump Reassures the Globalists in Davos

DAVOS, Switzerland — President Trump reassured the world’s political and financial leaders on Friday that his “America First” agenda was not a rejection of international cooperation, but he insisted that cross-border trade had to be made fairer and vowed to take action against predatory practices.

It was an encounter that once would have been considered unlikely: A president who ran on a nationalist platform and has sought to raise barriers since taking office, addressing an exclusive gathering of billionaire investors, corporate executives and heads of state who have spent decades building the global economic system that he has taken steps to dismantle.

Mr. Trump sought to reconcile the profound differences in their approaches with a relatively sober, restrained speech that argued that defending national interests was consistent with a global system. And he touted what he called a rising economy in the United States, declaring that “America is back” and inviting foreign businesses to invest.

“I believe in America,” Mr. Trump told a jampacked auditorium at the conclusion of the annual World Economic Forum. “As president of the United States, I will always put America first — just like the leaders of other countries should put their country first. But ‘America First’ does not mean America alone.”

And yet, he did not back down from his demand that that system be overhauled to guard the United States from what he called unfair behavior.

“We cannot have free and open trade if some countries exploit the system at the expense of others,” he said. “We support free trade, but it needs to be fair and it needs to be reciprocal because in the end, unfair trade undermines us all. The United States will no longer turn a blind eye to unfair trade practices.”

His message of an American economic comeback, however, was tempered by a report that came out even as he was on stage. The American economy grew by 2.6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2017, healthy but lower than the 3 percent that had been expected and that he had set as his goal. Over all, the economy grew 2.3 percent in 2017, Mr. Trump’s first year in office, up from 1.6 percent in 2016, President Barack Obama’s last year.

As he often does, Mr. Trump presented a selective version of the last year. He boasted that African-American unemployment was at a new low, but did not mention that it began falling in 2011 and the rate of decline on his watch was simply a continuation of the progress that started under Mr. Obama. He claimed credit for creating 2.4 million jobs since his election, but the number of new jobs created in 2017 was no higher than in any of the last six years of Mr. Obama’s tenure.

Still, he was right that the stock market has soared to new heights on his watch and that the American business community has responded to his tax cuts and regulatory rollback with enthusiasm. His surprisingly warm reception here, despite the schism over trade and global affairs, underscored the optimism of many corporate leaders.

Indeed, Klaus Schwab, who founded the World Economic Forum in 1971, offered a warm introduction to Mr. Trump on Friday. “Your strong leadership is open to misconceptions and biased interpretations,” he said. Still, there were scattered boos at that.

Mr. Trump has been a longtime critic of the gospel of free trade, immigration and integration that has animated the annual Davos gatherings for decades, decrying during his presidential campaign “the false song of globalism.” But his advisers urged him to adopt a more optimistic, less combative tone in his speech here, while explaining his differences with those in the audience in sober terms.

The speech was largely written by Gary D. Cohn, the president’s national economic adviser and a former Goldman Sachs banker, and Robert Porter, the White House staff secretary. Stephen Miller, the immigration hard-liner who often writes the president’s more provocative speeches, was busy working on next week’s State of the Union address, giving Mr. Cohn more of a free hand in shaping Mr. Trump’s message to his former peers from Wall Street and their international equivalents.

Mr. Trump, who often veers off on tangents, stuck largely to the script during the 15-minute speech and even during the unscripted 10-minute question-and-answer session with Mr. Klaus that followed.

He sought to sell a story of economic growth. “The world is witnessing the resurgence of a strong and prosperous America,” he said. “I’m here to deliver a simple message: There has never been a better time to hire, to build, to invest and to grow in the United States. America is open for business and we are competitive once again.”