Chris Lu served as President Obama’s final deputy secretary of labor from April 4, 2014 to January 20, 2017; he is the second Asian-American to hold a deputy cabinet post in US history. He served as White House Cabinet Secretary from 2009 to 2013, as co-chair of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and as executive director of the Obama-Biden Transition Project in 2008-09. Lu’s path to Washington began in 2005, when he joined then-senator Barack Obama’s team as his legislative director. By the time of Obama’s election in 2008, he had been promoted to acting chief of staff. President Obama said of Lu in 2013, “Chris Lu is one of my longest-serving and closest advisors … Through his dedication and tireless efforts, Chris has overseen one of the most stable and effective cabinets in history—a cabinet that has produced extraordinary accomplishments.” On April 13, Lu spoke with the Gate’s Ridgley Knapp about changes to the Department of Labor under Donald Trump, as well as the impact of having a businessman president and the new leadership of the Democratic Party.
The Gate: Do you think the confusion around who will lead the Department of Labor—first Andrew Puzder, now Alexander Acosta—will impede its work in the coming years?
Chris Lu: Who serves as the secretary of labor is less relevant than whether Donald Trump lives up to his promises to help workers. The president ran on a platform of creating jobs and lifting wages, and in the first twelve weeks of his administration he hasn’t lived up to those promises. Whether the secretary is Puzder or Acosta, I don’t believe that they will set the labor agenda for the Trump administration: the agenda will be set by the White House. The business of the department continues even without a confirmed secretary, whether it involves training people for jobs or inspecting workplaces for safety violations. But the absence of confirmed political leadership certainly impedes the department’s ability to make meaningful changes.
Gate: President Trump was elected on a platform focused heavily on job creation. Do you think the plans that he has set forward to create jobs are viable, and, if so, why have they yet to be implemented?
Lu: I’ll be honest: I haven’t seen any jobs programs proposed by Donald Trump. He ran on a platform of being the best job creator in history, and I see nothing out of him other than touting corporate job announcements that were made under the Obama administration or tweet-shaming companies to keep jobs here in the United States. I don’t in any way discount the power of the presidential bully pulpit, but that alone is not a job creation strategy. In the Obama administration, we passed an $800 billion stimulus package at the beginning of 2009 that created three and a half million jobs, saved the economy from the next Great Depression, built roads and bridges, expanded clean energy, made investments in broadband, and provided job training resources. I don’t see anything near that from the Trump administration. He has talked a lot about infrastructure, claiming to want to pass a one trillion dollar infrastructure bill. A bill such as that would obviously have an important role in creating jobs, but given how Trump’s legislative agenda has gotten bogged down, I’m not wildly optimistic that an infrastructure bill will be completed this year.
Gate: Do you think that having a businessman as president necessarily helps job creation?
Lu: When you look at what the Trump Organization is, it’s essentially a large family business. It’s a real estate development firm. Running a family business is significantly different from running a major corporation that manufactures goods or employs large numbers of employees. Most of what Trump has done from a business standpoint is branding: selling his name and putting it on buildings. Many of his other business ventures were failures. Whether it was his casinos, Trump Shuttle, Trump University—those have not been successful businesses. I think business experience is important in terms of creating jobs, but I don’t know that Donald Trump has the right kind of business experience. Barack Obama came into office without experience in the private sector, yet the Obama administration ended with six straight years of job growth and the longest job creation streak in history. Bill Clinton created twenty million jobs under his watch. Having business experience is always helpful, but it’s not a necessary predicate to creating jobs in this country.
Gate: Governor Bruce Rauner’s platform of job creation in 2014 was similar to Trump’s, but now Illinois is facing a massive budget crisis with little job growth to show for it. Do you foresee similar issues with the Trump administration?
Lu: Bruce Rauner has struggled because he’s been unable to work a deal with the Democrats in the Illinois legislature. Passing budgets and solving difficult programs are about whether you can reach compromises, whether you can find common ground with folks on the other side of the aisle. Donald Trump says he knows how to make deals, that he wrote the book on making deals. I haven’t seen any evidence of that. There is a deal to be cut on healthcare, but that would require him negotiating with Democrats. The decision that this administration will face is whether or not they want to work only with hardline Republicans. If so, they are not going to be successful. If they are willing to follow a more moderate, middle-of-the-road path, then they will get Democratic support on a number of initiatives. However, given what I’ve seen over the past three months, I am not optimistic about that.
Gate: Trump’s original budget proposed a 21 percent cut to the Department of Labor, the second-largest cut to any single department. How does this fact mesh with the president’s campaign promises to fight for the working man?
Lu: The Department of Labor is the only federal department whose sole interest is to look out for American workers. When you propose to cut over $2 billion from the Department of Labor, you’re not doing right by American workers. The budget blueprint indicated their desire to cut programs that provide job opportunities to senior citizens, unemployed people, disadvantaged youth—all populations that have high unemployment rates. The Trump administration is cutting employment services to the people most in need of job training. On top of that, they would almost certainly cut back on worker protection agencies within the Department of Labor, including the Occupational Safety Health Administration and the Wage and Hour Division, which protect worker safety and ensure that workers get paid the wages they’ve earned. Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, no one walks into their polling place on Election Day and says, “I’m going to vote for unsafe working conditions.” One of the reasons why we have worker protection laws in this country is that everyone deserves the right to come home safe and sound after work. Budgets are not just dry numbers—they are a reflection of our values. Based on this initial budget blueprint, the Trump administration is sending a clear signal that it is not interested in supporting American workers.
Gate: Having worked with Secretary Tom Perez in the Department of Labor, how do you think that his recent election as chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) will help bring some of the industrial blue-collar workers back to the Democratic Party that voted for President Trump in 2016?
Lu: I have a very close working relationship with Tom Perez. He understands passionately the needs and the desires of American workers. He comes from a middle-class background in Buffalo, New York. He has seen how American workers have suffered, not only during the recession but for the past few decades. During his time as secretary of labor, he traveled all around the country to see how we can improve the lives of workers. He is uniquely qualified to address the hopes and fears of American workers. Beyond that, he is someone who has served at the federal, state, and local levels. He has run for office himself, so he understands the need to create a pipeline of candidates. For far too long, Democrats have focused on the presidency and Congress, and we have neglected what’s happening at the state and local level. Chairman Perez will work to change that. He is also a strong proponent of technology and innovation. He will make investments to better target the voters most likely to support the party and use technology to get our message out. I was happy to support him, I am happy that he won, and I am happy to serve as co-chair of his transition advisory committee.
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