D. Dowd Muska


Free Trade: Obama’s Overlooked Opportunity

June 12, 2014

Higher taxes? Of course. Abysmal Supreme Court picks? Check. A giant step forward on the path to single-payer healthcare? Taken. Hiking the national debt from $10.6 trillion to $17.6 trillion? Done.

Yes, all things considered, the guy he replaced was probably worse. But Barack Obama has attained his own kind of calamitousness. Fortunately, the community-organizer-in-chief leaves office in two and a half years. And facing both unexceptional job-approval numbers and likely Republican congressional gains in November, he will be nearly impotent as his presidency winds down.

If Obama wants to devote a sizable chunk of his remaining time to something that promotes economic growth and is certain to draw bipartisan support, he’ll seize the opportunity that free trade offers. While it garners scant attention -- the neoconservative entertainment complex prefers to cover White House scandals and pseudo-scandals, while the moonbat media obsesses over same-sex marriage, climate change, and income inequality -- important developments are underway in the global crusade to vanquish protectionism.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership began as an attempt by Chile, New Zealand, Brunei, and Singapore to remove trade barriers. A major expansion is planned, one that includes the U.S. and fellow heavyweights Japan, Canada, Mexico, and Australia. It would be, in Cargill CEO David MacLennan’s words, “the largest free trade agreement in the world.” (China’s not invited, yet.)

Another pact, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, doesn’t hold as much promise -- obstacles are fewer, and economic interconnectedness deeper, between America and Europe. But as the Office of the U. S. Trade Representative argues, “In today’s highly competitive global marketplace, even small increases in a product’s cost due to tariffs can mean the difference between winning and losing a contract.”

An aggressive effort to advance free trade sounds like a no-brainer for Obama’s fourth quarter. But the president has always been of two minds on the issue. As a candidate, he pledged to renegotiate NAFTA. In office, he immediately flip-flopped, because “as the economy of the world” deteriorated, he considered “beggar-thy-neighbor policies” unwise. George W. Bush left behind ready-to-go trade agreements with several countries, but his successor’s bungling and political calculations delayed votes in Congress. (Eventually, deals with Panama, Colombia, and the Republic of Korea were approved.) In the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney justly dinged his opponent for not signing “one new free-trade agreement in the past four years.”

Obama’s ambivalence is explained by the contrast between what he was and what he’s become.

Left-wing ideologues despise free trade. Union bosses resist the diminution of their political power -- and worry about losing lucrative compensation packages -- if workers they “represent” suffer. Eco-fabulists are terrified that more imports of food and manufactured goods will worsen carbon “pollution,” and fear that America’s oil-and-gas abundance might create a new energy-export superpower. (The Sierra Club huffs that increased LNG shipments “would mean a significant increase of domestic hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the dirty and violent process that dislodges gas deposits from shale rock formations and is known to contaminate drinking water and pollute the air we breathe.”)

Obama made his bones as a liberal agitator. He rarely opposes ideological allies. But as chief executive, he’s spent time with and enjoyed support from hedge-fund, private-equity, and Wall Street folks, as well as Silicon Valley moguls and executives with multinational corporations. That’s a group of people who adore free trade.

Conform to true believers’ demands, or give in to the business community. Tough choice. The quandary explains why Daniel R. Pearson, of the Cato Institute, lamented that “the Obama team has not developed a compelling and economically sound argument on behalf of open global markets.” Hardly surprising, since it appears that “no official of cabinet level or higher has the experience, understanding, and commitment required to make a vigorous case in favor of trade liberalization.”

If the administration gets its mind right on trade, it can count on substantial support from Congress. The GOP is light on protectionists, and a fair amount of Democrats are pro-globalization. (In a recent conversation with the Wisconsin State Journal, Rep. Ron Kind mentioned a statistic sure to be startling to many: The U.S. has bilateral agreements with 20 countries, and posts a manufacturing-agriculture-services surplus with the group.)

Even in the labyrinthine and ponderous world of trade negotiations, two and a half years is a long time. Unwilling to fix the debacle that is the “Affordable Care Act,” Obama needs to focus on a tangible and achievable goal before noon on January 20, 2017. Meaningful progress on free trade would do nicely.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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