But given strong and rising opposition to such a move, and the potential economic damage, it's more likely the White House will use the specter of tariffs to gain leverage in trade talks with the European Union and Japan, some analysts predict.
"It would be unusual to see a president, in the year before his re-election campaign, take an action as obviously harmful to the economy and consumer pocketbooks," said Scott Miller, a senior trade adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The Commerce Department's final report — the culmination of an investigation that began in May under national-security provisions in Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 — is due Sunday, Feb. 17, though it's unclear whether the 35-day partial federal government shutdown has shifted that deadline. The agency held hearings last summer and delivered draft recommendations to the White House in November.
William Reinsch, a trade analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who led the National Foreign Trade Council for 15 years, said the 232 report will be delivered on time, based on conversations he and others have had with Commerce officials involved in the investigation.
The department is expected to identify auto imports as a threat and present a range of options for the president to consider, including tariffs. In a column on the Fox Business website last week, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross argued for the president to have the power to answer international trade barriers with tariffs as "a key negotiating tool" to bring down those barriers.
"We will not allow other countries to exploit our free market while remaining highly protectionist," he wrote.