Selling Trade Liberalization Like the Measles Vaccine

President Obama is presiding over what may prove to be the most significant round of trade liberalization in American history, yet he has never once made an affirmative case for that outcome. Despite various reports of intensifying outreach to members of Congress, the president’s “advocacy” is couched in enough skepticism to create and reinforce fears about trade and globalization.

Politico reports:

On Tuesday, Obama sent a letter directly to Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), arguing that reaching new trade agreements is the only way to stop China from dominating the global markets and letting its lax standards run the world.

“If they succeed, our competitors would be free to ignore basic environmental and labor standards, giving them an unfair advantage against American workers,” Obama wrote Gallego in a letter obtained by POLITICO. “We can’t let that happen. We should write the rules, and level the playing field for the middle class.”

Certainly, playing the China card could help win support for Trade Promotion Authority and, eventually, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but it needn’t be the first selling point.  Pitching trade agreements as though they were innoculations from an otherwise imminent disease betrays a profound lack of understanding of the benefits of trade. With TPP near completion and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership talks expected to accelerate, the president’s stubborn refusal to make an affirmative case for his trade initiatives to the public and the skeptics in his party is disconcerting. Bill Watson was troubled by the president’s feeble advocacy of trade liberalization in his SOTU address.

Does Obama really want a legacy as the president who increased Americans’ economic liberties and opportunities when the best case he can muster for his agenda is that if we don’t adopt it we’ll get crushed? I have questioned whether he supports his own trade agenda considering – among other things – his commitment to arresting climate change and growing income inequality, both of which he believes are exacerbated by increased trade.

Never has the president described how the TPP will better integrate U.S. producers, consumers, workers, investors and taxpayers with customers, suppliers, supply-chain collaborators, and investors in Asia and the Americas. Never has he explained that by eliminating tariffs and other monopolistic impediments to trade and investment, the TPP will help increase the scope for economies of scale and specialization, which will help reduce production costs, freeing resources for lower prices, investment, and research and development. Never has he taken the time to point out that competition inspires innovation, which especially benefits companies operating in the United States, which are advantaged with privileged access to research universities and broad and deep capital markets to commercialize innovation. Never has he mentioned that by opening the door to more competition to bid on public procurement projects, the TPP will help ensure higher quality infrastructure, on-time completion, and better use of taxpayer dollars. Never has he touted the advantages to the U.S. economy of tighter integration with the world’s fastest growing region. None of these positive, promising, pioneering aspects of the TPP has been given an ounce of public attention from the president. 

Some Washington insiders will be sure to contact Bill or me to say it doesn’t matter how Obama portrays trade, as long as he gets enough votes. Well, sure, I understand the transactional nature of politics. But if you don’t try to convince anyone of the merits of trade, if you allow to lay unrebutted, to fester and metastasize, the fallacies concocted by the monopolies who benefit from restricting trade, it serves to legitimize those fears and guarantees a continuation of misinformation and discord where there should be much less.