There has been more buzz about the prospects for trade liberalization this year than at any time since the first term of the second president Bush. It appears that some may be mistaking the chatter for actual accomplishment.
For example, trade policy made the front page of Saturday’s Washington Post in a story that is much less about the substantive issues, or the obstacle-strewn path to meaningful liberalization, or the political leadership that will be required to surmount those obstacles than it is a paean to President Obama’s alleged metamorphosis into a champion of free trade.
But before anyone awards the president the Nobel Trade Prize for a job yet done, consider this: in four-plus years, this administration has concluded zero trade agreements, while launching 13 WTO cases against various trade partners. For 50 months, enforcement and domestic protectionism—not liberalization—have dominated the trade agenda.
Yet, the absence of evidence that this administration can deliver meaningful new trade agreements doesn’t seem to curb the enthusiasm of Bruce Stokes, a long-time trade policy observer, whose comment serves as the emphatic final sentence of the Washington Post tribute: “They appear to have moved from a risk-averse first term to creating a legacy in international economic and trade policy.” A legacy? Really? Shouldn’t the bar be raised just a smidge before we coronate President Obama this generation’s Cordell Hull?
For starters, wouldn’t the president have delegated someone capable and experienced to take ownership of the trade agenda if he were really committed to leaving a trade policy legacy? U.S. trade representative Ron Kirk announced more than one year ago that he would be leaving his post early in a second Obama administration. Yet there is nobody vetted and ready to take the reins of trade policy. Kirk’s official resignation came at the end of last month—though he has been hanging around to help out on account of … “sequestration.”
The most prominent name floated for U.S. Trade Representative has been the OMB’s Jeff Zients, the person most closely associated with President Obama’s proposal to subsume the USTR under the enforcement-centric Commerce Department—again, not exactly the substance of trade legacy-building. Members from both parties in Congress have demanded a better candidate if the president expects his trade agenda to be taken seriously.
Accomplishments, not rhetorical intentions, should serve as the basis for our judgments. Anyone can announce initiatives. President Obama is quite proficient at reciting litanies of initiatives. But it remains to be seen how he handles the situation when the deals require his confronting allied interests and dismantling their protectionist perches. In fairness, the administration’s trade negotiators have been working hard toward a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement with 10 Pacific-rim nations. But let’s see where this goes before we start writing history. There’s still a lot of ham left on that bone.
The administration has verbally committed to completing the TPP negotiations by the end of this year and the just-announced Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations with Europe by the end of next year—both virtual impossibilities given where things stand in those negotiations and between the White House and Congress. So we already have a credibility problem.