SOTU and Trade: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

President Obama’s State of the Union address last night was, in my opinion, pretty awful (although James Pethokoukis at the American Enterprise Institute thinks it could have been worse). I know SOTUs are political theater at its worst, and I watch them always with something not unlike disgust, but I found almost nothing to like in the substance last night. The electioneering, partisan, self-aggrandizing tone didn’t help.

Let me turn specifically to trade policy, which was more thoroughly covered last night than in recent SOTUs. In an election year, and from a president who is ambivalent (at best) on trade, a trade-heavy speech is not always a good thing: trade policy can get caught up in broader political arguments about inequality, unemployment and economic growth. And rarely does that combination work well for those of us who want and promote free trade between people regardless of the political borders behind which those people happen to live.

But first, the Good news from last night’s speech. President Obama did make a passing and veiled reference to the need for Congress to extend Permanent Normal Trade Relations to Russia, necessary for the United States to treat Russia as any other member of the World Trade Organization when it joins the body later this year (i.e., allowing Americans to access Russian goods and services more readily). And at least he painted the recent passage of the trade agreements with Colombia, South Korea and Panama as a positive development, albeit on mercantilist grounds (more on this later).

The Bad? The president said precisely nothing about the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations currently underway with nine other Asia-Pacific countries (with Canada, Mexico and Japan interested in joining in the future). The TPP is supposedly the crowning achievement of his administration’s trade efforts and a deal that he was itching to complete in 2012. What does it say about his priorities that it warrants not a mention in his main speech of the year? Maybe his political supporters in organized labor aren’t buying this “21st century trade agreement” stuff any more than I am and he sees merit in keeping it quiet. But that then raises worrying questions about the ability of the negotiations to be completed on schedule if they don’t have full-throated political support at the highest level. The president made no mention of the World Trade Organization or its struggling Doha round of trade liberalization negotiations, either, although maybe there he is simply showing acceptance of the round’s (near) death, an assessment he would share with most trade watchers.

And the Ugly? Once again the president displays no appreciation for the true benefits of free trade – the benefits from specialization and exchange. They include the economic benefits that come from increased competition, and from access to cheaper and more variable goods and services for Americans. From his silly (and, I suspect, futile) goal to “double exports in five years” to his rhetoric about how America can “win” if the playing field is level (what does “winning” mean in that context anyway?), the speech was peppered with nationalistic, misguided and quite frankly inflammatory rhetoric that will not help trade relations – let alone lead to enhanced trading opportunities for Americans – one bit. Creating yet another government agency, this time to “investigat[e] unfair trade practices in countries like China”, will just add to tensions. Claiming the tires debacle as a model of trade enforcement success is yet another example of how the concept of unintended consequences is apparently lost on this president.

Matthew Yglesias has some excellent things to say on the mercantilist nonsense in Obama’s message, and the ill-conceived manufacturing fetish he conveyed. And Obama managed to combine both economic illiterate concepts when wailing about the unfairness of having to compete with “foreign manufacturers [who] have a leg up on ours only because they’re heavily subsidized.” (He then, inevitably, went on to include all sorts of subsidies or tax breaks that he would like to extend to certain American firms/industries – Chris Edwards has amply covered the tax stuff here). Overall, I give this speech a “D” on trade. Must try harder.