President Obama’s Cognitive Dissonance on Trade with Latin America

As President Obama flies from Brazil to Chile today and then on to El Salvador later this week, trade and jobs have been a major theme of his trip. So far the tour has been a public relations success, but it also highlights the contradictions in the president’s trade policy toward our Latin American neighbors.

One contradiction is that the president says nice things about trade agreements in the abstract, but he has so far refused to show leadership when it really matters. In an op-ed in USAToday on Friday, as he was about to depart for Brazil, the president wrote:

Thanks in part to our trade agreements across the region, we now export three times as much to Latin America as we do to China, and our exports to the region — which are growing faster than our exports to the rest of the world — will soon support more than 2 million jobs here in the United States.

Yet nowhere in the 900-word article did the president even mention “Colombia” and “Panama,” two countries that have already signed trade agreements with the United States but are waiting for the president to ask Congress to actually vote on them. The Colombia agreement alone would stimulate an extra $1 billion a year in U.S. exports. (See our recent Cato study.)

Yet because his labor-union allies oppose both agreements, President Obama could not bring himself to even mention them in a major article on Latin American trade, exports, and jobs. More than passing strange.

A second contradiction is that the president talks a lot about reducing barriers to trade in other countries, but hardly ever acknowledges remaining trade barriers in the United States. No other country would like to hear that acknowledgment more than Brazil, whose producers face high U.S. barriers to some of their most important exports.

In a speech yesterday in Rio de Janeiro, the president told his hosts:

In a global economy, the United States and Brazil should expand trade, expand investment, so that we create new jobs and new opportunities in both of our nations. And that’s why we’re working to break down barriers to doing business. That’s why we’re building closer relationships between our workers and our entrepreneurs.

Our commercial relations with Brazil could be even closer if the United States did not maintain high trade barriers against such major Brazilian exports as sugar, ethanol, steel, and orange juice. Brazil would also export more cotton and soybeans if the U.S. government did not so heavily subsidize our own production.

If President Obama has been working to break down those U.S.-imposed barriers to U.S.-Brazilian trade, I somehow missed the news.