Francisco Sanchez, former undersecretary of Commerce for international trade in President Obama’s first term, commented on the administration’s trade efforts in a March 21 article in Politico. His view is that the president will need to get directly involved in making the case for liberalization if he wants his trade agenda to succeed. Presidential leadership no doubt will be essential. Certainly few congressional Democrats would be eager to stick their necks out on behalf of freer trade, if they think the president might leave them high and dry by backing away from his commitment to Trade Promotion Authority (TPA or “fast track”), the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
But as I noted in a recent paper, it seems unlikely that the president is sufficiently committed to his trade agenda. It also is unclear whether developments elsewhere in the world would permit him to devote the time and energy to trade issues that Mr. Sanchez correctly argues is needed. That raises the question of whether other senior officials in the administration might be able to augment the president’s efforts.
Would it be feasible for Vice President Joe Biden to play a useful role in achieving the administration’s trade objectives? Biden knows Congress well and cast many trade votes during his career in the Senate. He consistently voted in favor of trade liberalization in his early years, starting with the Trade Act of 1974. Perhaps the Senate was a happier place then, with both parties placing relatively greater emphasis on keeping the United States actively engaged in strengthening the global economy. Biden’s pro-trade voting record continued throughout the 1990s on behalf of trade policy initiatives – including NAFTA and the Uruguay Round – supported by President Clinton. However, his approach appears to have changed rather abruptly when George W. Bush became president. Since then Biden’s only pro-trade votes on major issues were to support the FTAs with Australia and Morocco in 2004. He wrapped up his Senate career by voting against DR-CAFTA, Oman and Peru.
This background may position Biden to provide helpful outreach to members of Congress who have doubts about the administration’s trade agenda. Since he has found himself voting both for and against market-opening initiatives, perhaps he would have credibility in explaining why liberalization is the right choice now.